Everyone has heard about Russia’s love for caviar and vodka. But the country’s collective sweet tooth is less well known. The earliest recorded example of this passion for all things sweet is honey bread, which was made from honey and spices in the ninth century. It wasn’t until the seventeenth century that sugar first started to be imported to Russia in large quantities. In 1719, St Petersburg’s first sugar factory was opened, and produced around 900 kgs a year. But prices were exorbitant. As far as chocolate is concerned, some believe it first arrived to Russia in the late eighteenth century with the Venezuelan diplomat, Francisco de Miranda. It was initially drunk exclusively by members of high society and court diaries record that Catherine the Great started her mornings with “five or six cups of coffee or chocolate”. But by the nineteenth century, the drink was on sale across St Petersburg: characters in the novels of both Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolai Gogol order cups of chocolate in local taverns. Although chocolate was initially seen as an ideologically unsound pleasure by the Soviet authorities, it quickly gained official approval, and good quality chocolate bars with colourful wrappings were produced, including the iconic Alyonka brand. Even during the World War II siege of the city, St Petersburg’s Krupskaya chocolate factory – named after Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin’s wife – continued to function. But Russia’s passion for all things sweet takes in more than just chocolate.
Doughnuts, pancakes filled with jam, condensed milk and ice cream are all consumed in great quantities.
Ice cream isn’t only a summer treat in Russia. Come rain, shine, or snow, it’s never hard to find an ice cream vendor in the centre of St Petersburg. Grab a stakanchik, a cup-shaped cone packed with vanilla or chocolate ice cream, on Nevsky Prospekt, or head to one of the city’s many cafés. Soviet-era ice creams such as Eskimo remain extremely popular. But for a real treat, try the Summertime Craft ice creams at Funky Foods street food project. Based on the first floor of the Loft Project ETAGI (a multifunctional art space in the centre of Saint Petersburg), some of the flavours are unusual, to say the least. Ever felt like a tomato and basil ice cream? Pumpkin and rum? Buckwheat? Here’s your chance. There are also more traditional flavours on offer, and they are all made using only natural ingredients. After picking up a couple of cones, head to the Loft Project’s rooftop area to enjoy a memorable view of the city. Then take in an exhibition or two – after you’ve finished your ice cream, of course.
Russians really, really love sweetened condensed milk, which was a favourite Soviet treat. Children and adults regularly eat it by the spoonful. Many people boil it in the can for a few hours, which transforms it into a delicious caramelised spread. In fact, most sales of condensed milk are for snacking purposes, rather than cooking, and the labels of Russian condensed milk tins are often art in their own right. Head to Land supermarket in the Vladimirsky Passage shopping plaza to stock up or just marvel at the variety on offer. There’s more to the Vladimirsky shopping experience than just condensed milk, though. Another shopping experience you should endeavour to fit in is the Kuznechny Market, the city’s largest fruit and vegetable market. Vendors are more than happy to offer free samples of honey, caviar and smetana (sour cream), and the large number of traders from the south Caucasus means this is a great place to pick up churchkhela, a sausage-shaped treat made of dried grapes and nuts that is extremely popular in the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Doughnuts (“ponchiki” or “pyshki”) have been popular with Russians of all ages since the Soviet era. For the ultimate doughnut experience, visit the much-loved Pyshki, which is just off Nevsky Prospekt. Often copied, but rarely bettered, this no-frills café has been in business since 1958, and was recently saved from closure by order of the St Petersburg mayor as part of a campaign to preserve the city’s heritage. Pyshki has changed little over the years, and still uses Soviet-era methods, making it a real trip down memory lane for the city’s older residents. But it’s not only popular among senior citizens – it’s also a hit among students and office workers, as well as foreign tourists. “Hot doughnuts!” (“Goryachie pyshki!”) shout the staff, as the smell of fried dough fills the air. Locals need little encouragement, however. In a sure sign of the quality of the doughnuts produced here, there are often queues stretching down the street, especially at weekends. But don’t worry, service is brisk – so grab a tea, coffee or soft drink and enjoy the taste of a real Russian treat.
In Russia, pancakes can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. This is not as strange as it sounds, given that Russian pancakes come with all types of fillings, from mushrooms to caviar. But kids – and many adults – love the sweet varieties, which include jam, honey and spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk. The best place to try sweet pancakes is in a domestic setting, with cup after cup of black tea. Failing that, there are pancake cafés all over the city. The oldest is Russkie Blini (Russian Pancakes), a popular café that has remained unchanged for decades. It’s sparsely decorated and has minimal seating, but the pancakes here are as authentic as they come. As well as sweet pancakes, Russkie Blini also offers meat and mushroom fillings. Fun fact: the Russian for pancake, “blin”, is also a very mild curse word, the equivalent of “sugar” in the UK or “fudge” in the USA. Indeed pancakes are such an integral part of the culture, they have found their way into many other sayings and phrases. Example: ‘The first pancake always comes out a lump’ (‘if at first you don’t succeed, try again’).