Baking is at the heart of Russian culture. Visitors are traditionally welcomed with bread and salt, and a Russian saying declares: “Bread crowns everything”. Small shops sell soft white batons, denser rye loaves or multi-layered, festive honey cakes in a city where bread has even inspired new architecture. The city’s modern bakeries offer varied fare. Whether you’re looking for cinnamon doughnuts or whole wheat bagels, you’ll find them somewhere in Moscow.
In the nineteenth century, Count Sheremetev wrote from France to the poet Alexander Pushkin: “It's difficult to live here in Paris ... one asks for black bread in vain.” Black bread, made from rye flour, was traditional in Russia long before.
French baguettes arrived, and Muscovites particularly love dark, sweetish Borodinsky bread, baked with coriander and molasses. First made, according to some accounts, by nuns in a convent near Borodino, the bread’s name is redolent with history. For one, Borodino was the site of Napoleon’s brutal 1812 battle against the Russian army, as described in Leo Tolstoj’s epic novel War and Peace.
Some of the palatial stations of the Moscow metro feature harvest-themed murals and the central pillar of Kurskaya station’s lobby is a giant wheat sheaf. One of Moscow’s best-known monuments, Vera Mukhina’s 25-metre, stainless steel Worker and Kolkhoz Woman shows a woman from a Soviet collective farm raising a sickle. The State Tretyakov Gallery also features Mukhina’s 1939 sculpture of two naked bronze women holding up a bundle of wheat in a socialist realist sculpture called simply Bread.
The sprawling “garden ring” road growls past the door, clogged with traffic and clanking trolleybuses during Moscow’s near-perpetual rush hours. But walk through the door of Wolkonsky bakery, on the corner of Malaya Bronnaya Ul, and you’re transported to a different world. The bread is fresh every morning and the air smells of caramel and marzipan. Elegant shoppers queue up for raspberry and pistachio macarons, or perch on silk-cushioned seats to sip their cappuccinos.
Parisian baker Eric Kayser sells fancy bread around the world, from New York to Tokyo, but his Volkonsky shops in Moscow, St Petersburg and Kiev offer the best of Russian baking alongside French patisserie. With an over ten-year history and several Moscow branches, this chain of top-end bread and cake shops sell everything from traditional poppy seed-studded loaves to buttery blackcurrant pastries. You don’t need a sweet tooth either; there are crusty ciabattas with basil and olives or Russian-style puff pastry sausage rolls.
Wheat sheaf motifs decorate pavilions, lampposts and fountains throughout this recently renovated, café-laden Moscow landmark, a mile of architectural excess in honour of Soviet industry. VDNKh, which translates as the All-union Agricultural Exhibition, first opened its doors in August 1939 as a popular agricultural show. Today it also hosts a hundred international trade fairs every year, including an annual gathering of bakers and confectioners.
A spectacular fountain just beyond the central pavilion, with sixteen golden women around a monumental sheaf of corn, represents the “friendship of nations”: at the far end, a giant gleaming sheaf of wheat stands in the lake. In between you pass museums, shops, a city farm, a Vostok rocket and numerous ornate buildings. The Ukrainian Pavilion has alabaster panels, gold spikes, wheat sheaves over the door, ceramic vegetables on the walls and a giant crown of metal herbs and flowers on the roof. Nearby, wreaths of majolica fruit wind round the pillars of the Belorussian Pavilion.
The range of food on offer at VDNKh is equally exciting. You can sample khinkali dumplings under the dome of the Armenian Pavilion or freshly caught fish in a lakeside wooden village. There are spicy Chinese noodles, fried Crimean chebureks, calamari, blueberry pancakes and two hundred types of tea.
Soviet mechanisation spawned some interesting buildings, and this industrial architecture is in turn inspiring contemporary urban projects. A constructivist bread factory is one of the latest relics of Moscow’s past finding new life in the city. There are already cafés and art galleries in the old riverside Red October chocolate factory, and the sprawling, colourful Vinzavod winery.
Now, the giant 1930s cylindrical bakery, which as Bread Factory Number 5 once housed a spiralling production line churning out 250,000 loaves a day, is becoming a “cultural cluster” including a bread museum. Plans for the new complex, to be backed by tall glass towers, also involve a farmers market selling local produce.
Built to feed the once-militant workers of the Presnensky District, the bread factory stands in an area rich in history. Poets and revolutionaries lie together in the atmospheric Vagankovskoe Cemetery, just down the road. Russian actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky is buried inside the main gates. His statue is wrapped in a shroud, with a guitar on his back, and fans leave flowers on his grave. Away to the right, under a strange metal palm tree, a headless stone woman is said to mark the tomb of a nineteenth-century highwaywoman called Sonya Golden Hand.
Monks made their own bread in Russia for centuries, until the Soviets closed or converted the monasteries. Now they’re baking once again in the Danilovsky Monastery, official residence of the Patriarch and HQ of the Russian Orthodox Church, guarded by uniformed Cossacks. You can buy fresh loaves from kiosks near the gold-domed church in the monastery’s high white wall. In 1930, when the buildings became a children’s prison, an American industrialist bought the eighteen bells in this entrance tower and gave them to Harvard University. Saved like this from being melted down, they were returned in 2008.
Prince Daniel founded the monastery in the thirteenth-century so it claims to be Moscow's oldest, although the buildings are more recent. The lovely seventeenth-century Cathedral of the Holy Fathers has several chapels on two levels, full of smoky incense and beeswax candles. Joseph Bové, architect of the Bolshoi Theatre, designed the neo-classical Trinity Cathedral next to it.
The Danilovsky monks produce around five thousand loaves a day, using wheat flour that is grown and milled on the monastery’s own farm, in the countryside near Ryazan, 100 miles southeast of Moscow. The monastic farm also keeps bees and sells the proceeds in a holy honey shop. The monastery’s little canteen serves hot drinks and twelve types of homemade pies.