My brain feels like it's just gone ten rounds with Nikolai Valuev and lost. The intermittent, sharp throb that comes and goes in 15-second snatches is all that I can focus my attention on. Not even the presence of a plump ginger cat in the corner of Pyshechnaya – the most famous café in St Petersburg – can interrupt the vicious pang of my hangover.
Thankfully, it's just as I'm considering giving up and booking the next flight home that I make it to the front of the 40-person deep queue and a paper plate stacked with piping hot pyshki is placed in my arms, like baby Moses into a wicker basket. These freshly made doughnuts cost between 70 and 90 roubles (around £1) and come dressed in a light jacket of powdered sugar; their texture is wondrously chewy and churro-like.
It's not until I've rifled two of these golden rings into my gaping maw, chasing each bite with a greedy gulp of toothache-inducingly sweet coffee, that I'm able to feel almost vaguely human again. Brushing powdered sugar off my face and hands, I'm struck by a realisation I wasn't necessarily expecting to come to: I kind of like Russia.
Rewind 72 hours and I'm touching down in Domodedovo Airport in Moscow. My food-focussed trip has been organised by Intrepid Travel – an ethically minded tour operator that curates trips with a specific focus on sustainable travel and cultural exchange. This particular expedition is all about exploring Russia through its eclectic food and the people who make it. And that means dill. Lots and lots of dill.
I would say that I embarked on this journey with nothing but an open mind but that would be an outright lie, because this is Russia, a land where Putin rules with an iron fist, and the questionable and often problematic politics that go alongside it. To say that I was hesitant would be a vast understatement, but my curiosity – and hunger – helped fight that trepidation.
this is Russia, a land where Putin rules with an iron fist and the questionable politics that go alongside it
Following a scenic coach drive from the airport we waste little time in unpacking and getting in our first Russian meal at Mari Vanna. Situated on Spiridonyevskiy Lane, this restaurant has the feel of a family dining room (chintzy crockery and table clothes included) with added modern touches like a television screen playing what look to be rejected University of the Arts London video projects. These contemporary flourishes become less surprising after I realise there's actually an identical branch of the restaurant located in London. The only difference, of course, being that the Knightsbridge site is full of UAL students to boot.
The food at Mari Vanna, much like the decor, combines the traditional and the modern. Dishes of 'herring under fur coat' and Olivier salad are exactly what you'd expect to find on the table of your typical nuclear Russian family. The former is an eye-catching mixture of viscerally purple beetroot and sunshine yellow egg yolk that, because of the fact it requires the removal of numerous bones to be edible, is a dish that's usually saved for special occasions like New Year.
While I adjust my palate to the presence of dill and sour cream on just about every plate, I knock back a few cooling glasses of kvass – a fermented ginger beer-like drink made from rye bread that could easily have the aisles of Whole Foods swooning. In fact, a great deal of the ferment-forward fare is what a lot of health-conscious shoppers are seeking at the moment; mounds of pickled cabbage, cucumbers, and tomatoes adorning most of the tables we dine at.
Moscow – in pictures
This predilection for pickling has been borne out of necessity rather than nutrition, with the harsh Russian climate meaning people have developed a penchant for storing things as long as humanly possible. All one has to do is look at the Russian version of sauerkraut, kvashenaya kapusta, for an everyday example of that acidic stockpiling. And the embalmed body of Vladimir Lenin for a more extreme case-in-point.
Nonetheless, not all of the fare is as Stoke Newington-friendly. A great deal of Russian food – like the beautifully bronzed pastries known as pirozhok – is designed to keep you going through the long winter months. These hearty carbohydrate pockets come filled with everything from smoked fish to potatoes; mushrooms to chicken, and are a perfect pick-me-up at any time of the day.
Plied with an assortment of flavoured vodkas and plenty of pirozhok, pickles and pelmeni dumplings, we leave Mari Vanna on a high, buoyant, full and anticipating the rest of the eating to come (despite an untouched plate of holodets – boiled meat jelly – proving that aspic is unlikely to be making any big comebacks anytime soon).
We follow our first night in Moscow with a walk around the city. Moscow in the daytime is a lot like Paris: wide streets and imposing buildings in various pastel hues unfold before me, all of them rifling with busy punters sifting in and out of the city's expansive Metro system. At one point in our walk we pass Pushkin Square and the first ever Russian McDonald's. The restaurant served over 30,000 on its first day of business in 1990: emphasising the enduring appeal of Western brands in Russia and the notion that food is undeniably – and intensely – political. Vladimir Putin's ban on the import of agricultural products from countries that applied economic sanctions against Russia (including the United States and all members of the EU) has rocked the country's food ecosystem. It's been reported that Russian authorities have destroyed over 19,000 tonnes of banned Western food products since its introduction in 2014.
A more positive consequence of this ban, though, is that Russians have been forced to start making their own products in response – or, at the very least, acquiring them from more local suppliers.
Walk into any well-stocked supermarket and you can buy ricotta and mozzarella made in neighbouring Belarus. During a visit to Moscow's Danilovsky Market, we even tucked into a log of local goat's cheese made in Smolensk, as well as a wheel of local cheddar from the Ural mountains (local in Russia, of course, tends to cast a wider net than it does in most other countries – the Ural mountains are roughly 1,000 miles from Moscow).
While the Russian version of gorgonzola may lack the punch of its Italian cousin, the fact that the country's agrarians have even attempted to replicate it speaks volumes about the dogged and practical mentality of the Russian people. Indeed, part of schooling in Russia involves learning how to safely identify which mushrooms are poisonous and which are safe for eating.
Leaving Moscow for Vladimir (a region that's far less, well, major) requires a journey on a high-speed train. It's hard not to be entranced by the sheer scale of Russia once on board the locomotive; the verdant and vast scenery running by as it desperately tries to keep pace with our metal projectile – blurred birch trees and buildings taking turns to fill the frame of the window.
Home to the International Cucumber Festival and over 52 churches and monasteries, the town of Suzdal relies entirely on tourism and the curiosity of Muscovites looking for fresh pickles and a taste of the pious life. Only 10,000 people actually live in Suzdal, but this spire-filled town is visited by one million tourists every year.
Suzdal – in pictures
Our hunger takes us into the home of Helen Polezhaeva. Helen is a staple of Intrepid's food trips to Russia and, warmly welcoming us into her house while a Russian version of Jeremy Kyle takes over the television and a wall of dill hits our nostrils, it's not hard to see why. After serving us cucumbers and tomatoes freshly picked from her garden then pickled, she expertly takes us through the paces of making borscht.
This traditional Ukrainian beetroot stew typically incorporates pork or lard in its bright and acidic broth. The version Helen fills us with, however, uses chicken schmaltz as a substitute but, as she explains through translation, the most important aspect of a borscht isn't the meat; it's what you add to it that counts the most.
"Borscht without sour cream is not borscht," she announces sternly, adding an iceberg of the stuff to my phosphorescent bowl. Learning to cook borscht is a rite of passage for a Russian; it's a midweek meal that all home cooks must have in their arsenal. Or, as Helen puts it, "borscht is a dish a woman must learn how to cook before she is ready to get married." Although she doesn't have an exactly 2019 view on domestic duties, it's undeniable that Helen is intensely proud of her role as matriarch, regularly cooking for her son and grandson during their weekend visits.
That pride is reflected in how recipes in Russia are rarely written down and nearly always created depending on the cook's own preferences. Helen adds a heaped teaspoon of sugar to her borscht when it needs sweetening; a glug of white vinegar when it needs a kick of acid. The result is a bright borscht that hits every flavour spot on your tongue. It's simultaneously sweet and sour, nailing the same flavour components that make a Thai tom yum soup or a Filipino escabeche so tart and moreish.
That perceptible connection between Russian and Asian cuisine is hardly an accidental one, either. It's widely believed that dumplings were first brought over to Russia by the Mongols (adding fuel to the fire of my belief that any dough-wrapped parcel of delicious has a universal appeal). While cultural appropriation remains a hot button issue in food culture – and rightfully so – all you need to do is look at the similarities between Chinese jiaozi, Russian pelmeni, Japanese gyoza and Ukrainian vareniki to witness culinary assimilation in action, and see how well it can work when done respectfully over a prolonged period of time. That cultural exchange doesn't just end at the food chain, either – even Matryoshka dolls boast Japanese ancestry.
It's widely believed that dumplings were first brought over to Russia by the Mongols
Throughout our meal at Helen's she pours out numerous shots of vodka for us to sample. It's important to note that every time you have a shot in Russia (which is often), you've got to make a toast 'to' something. Usually "to health" or "new friends" depending on how well you know your fellow drinkers. And how many shots you've already had.
Drinking in Russia is rarely unaccompanied by food thanks to the popularity of zakuski, a Slavic form of tapas where you are encouraged to snack on plates of everything from smoked herring and rye bread to salmon roe and slices of lard while you drink. Every shot you take is followed by an immediate bite of zakuski designed to take the sting out of the vodka.
After leaving Helen's house full of zakuski and perhaps one too many toasts to friendship, a quest for what's capturing the attention of the Slavic youth takes us to an outlet of the Khachapuri restaurant group.
Khachapuri specialises in Georgian cuisine – a style of cooking that is super hot in Moscow right now with the hip and happening for reasons that are… a whole lot less hip and happening. After numerous economic sanctions caused the rouble to collapse in 2014, affordable travel to a country like Georgia was the only feasible way for Russian citizens to see other parts of the world. Following their trips to these neighbouring nations, travellers often brought back a taste for the food they ate while abroad, hence the spike in popularity of food from countries such as Georgia.
One of the most popular Caucasian dishes at Khachapuri are the khinkali: soup-filled dumplings that are similar to a xiao long bao in just about every way aside from their more generous size. As I bite into the supple skin and slurp out the juices of a particularly hefty beef and pork bad boy, I'm taken back to memories of errant night outs in Chinatown.
Lining our stomachs with the khinkali and a couple of hunks of the restaurant's namesake khachapuri (a molten cheese-and-egg-filled flatbread that looks a bit like an edible Bop-It!), we decide it's time to paint the town red – or a slightly different shade of red – with a whistle-stop tour of some of its bars and clubs, including a visit to the city's first LGBT-inclusive nightclub.
Roughly two hours' sleep and a quick morning flight to St Petersburg later and I'm in the Pyshechnaya café nursing pyshki, coffee and the aforementioned hangover from hell. Once the miraculous healing power of doughnuts, sugar and caffeine has kicked in, I'm able to take in my surroundings with a bit more clarity.
St Petersburg is less severe than Moscow and less cathedral-heavy than Suzdal; the city has a Unesco-protected skyline in which only cathedrals and churches are allowed to stand higher than the iconic Winter Palace. A walking tour provides a broad taste of St Petersburg's character and an understanding of what entranced the likes of Pushkin and Dostoevsky.
Our maiden lunch in St Petersburg consists of a spread of dishes from a stolovaya canteen called Stolovaya no.1 Kopeika, the most popular chain of these casual eateries in the city. Each stolovaya is a cheap, near-identical and relatively un-cheerful joint with severe school canteen vibes and multiple Soviet-era posters – Bob Bob Ricard this is not. But as I work my way through a plate of mimosa – a layered salad of fish, mayo, vegetables and egg white – I happily watch a multitude of people from all walks of life arrive and eat as they please. It doesn't matter that this eatery is as no frills as they come because a stolovaya isn't about impressing foreigners from abroad. A stolovaya is a place that's for real Russian people.
A brisk walk the next day past the pink palace where beef stroganoff was invented is followed by a caffeine pit-stop at Kofe Na Kukhne – a trendy spot that serves what an Australian I'm travelling with describes as a "fucking good flat white" – before we arrive at the Sennaya Square food market. Also known as the Hay Market, Sennaya Square is a scattershot of indoor and outdoor stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and veg to horse meat and bear salami.
Sennaya Square – in pictures
The market has been in St Petersburg for over 200 years and remains a place where locals come to get their weekly shops and catch up on gossip with their favourite vendors, from former Soviet countries such as Tajikistan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. They all make their voices and heritage loud and clear at this market. It's a literal cacophony that underlines the close relations that still exist between these disparate nations and the fact that Russia continues – rather staunchly in the face of protests from the higher-ups – to be a bubbling pot of multiple different ethnicities. Before leaving the market we make sure to pick up a bushel of honey-spiced pryaniki biscuits: a gift for when we're welcomed into the home of Olga Prokopenko to break bread with her and her five children.
Located on the sixth floor of a building on the outskirts of St Petersburg, Olga's flat is a typical ex-kommunalka (communal apartment) similar to those that most Petersburgers live in. There's not a lot of space to spare as we squeeze ourselves around a table heaped with glasses of kvass, herring and buckets of sour cream, but there's more than enough warmth and hospitality to go around.
Being able to come into the home of a local like Olga is a genuine privilege and part of the reason that Intrepid's tours are so popular. To eat the hearty zharkoe (a pork, potato and plum stew) that Olga serves provides more than just a visceral delight – it's a learning experience and a gateway into the life of another human being. Food is something of a great equaliser and eating in the home of your fellow man and woman is, in my opinion, one of the most humbling ways to learn what someone is all about.
Intrepid Travel's ten-day Russia Real Food Adventure starts from £1,225 per person. The price includes accommodation, ground transport, and most meals and activities. It excludes international flights. Call 0808 274 5111 or visit intrepidtravel.com.
Eating sour cream and salmon roe spread on a blini while five children sing 'Baby Shark' (thanks, globalisation) isn't anywhere near as luxurious as hoovering caviar in a lush cabin on the Trans-Siberian railway, but in many ways it's better. Because this is the real Russia: a land of people like Olga; a land of innumerable immigrants trying to make ends meet; a land where you have to create your own gorgonzola because the man in charge won't let you import it. And while my personal politics might be at odds with a lot of what Russia is about, I can definitely get on board with all of that.