THE sky is gray and the wind swirls dry snow across the wide, busy Nevsky Prospect, one of the oldest and most famous streets in all Russia. It's my first time on the soil of this vast country I've read so much about. In my head are visions of a troika ride through mountains of snow to a romantic dacha in the countryside, but the reality is the commuter rush: Warmly clad, well-mufflered, serious Russians scurry from bus to underground.
No shops are open - it's too early. But on a side street I meet first one, then another mother with a small child, rushing along, probably to a day-care center.
Most Russian women work, so there is probably not much cooking from scratch here. And, as is the case in many countries, restaurant cooking will never come up to the standard of an old-fashioned, home-cooked meal. Fortunately, the best recipes survive.
In four days I manage to dispel some of the negative stories of Russian food. It is not lavish, nor comparable to the haute cuisine of Europe or America. But there are highlights.
The soups, for example, are wonderful. The breads, the very best in the world, include a great variety of dense, wonderful grainy loaves of black and brown rye made with yeast-raised dough, to give it the faint taste of sour the Russians so love.
The French writer Balzac once wrote that he had observed 77 kinds of bread in the Ukraine alone. In this country of scarcities, bread is abundant, available, and top quality. No wonder the average Russian eats a pound of bread a day.
An inexpensive breakfast buffet at the Hotel Moscva offers a generous selection of dishes, many not familiar to Americans as breakfast food.
The long counter displays at least 20 different choices, including sausages and eggs, cheeses, blini (pancakes), and several kinds of pickled vegetables, including carrots, cucumbers, cabbage, and beets. There is hot cereal, of course - kasha (buckwheat groats), an excellent porridge. Kasha is one of the oldest traditional Russian foods.
AT breakfast there are always many kinds of breads, buns and rolls, both sweet and plain.
And there is always jam. I watch at breakfast as Russians add it to coffee and tea. Raspberry or sour cherry jam are favorites. They like it on ice cream, too, which is excellent and eaten year-round. Legend has it that ice cream was introduced to Russia by Italian workers in the 16th century, who left as their other beloved legacy St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square.
But back to the soups. The poorer the country, the better the soups, it has been said. Certainly soups for centuries served country people as one-course meals. They are the least expensive and the most nourishing foods in any land. Russian cuisine has produced a number of superb ones.
The favorite with Russians and travelers alike is beet soup or borsch, especially when it is full of vegetables and meat and topped with sour cream, fresh parsley, and dill. Although any borsch must contain beets, it can include almost anything else. There are as many recipes for borsch as there are grandmothers. Garlic, celery, peppers, potatoes, and turnips are often added. These hearty, full-flavored soups make a whole meal with dark, crusty Russian rye bread or the hot, stuffed, savory pastries called piroghi.
Piroghi or kulebiaka are traditional accompaniments for soup. Piroghi are the most common and are made in dozens of combinations of stuffings - meat, fish, cheese, and vegetables in many combinations. There are even dessert piroghi. Kulebiaka is a pastry with layers of salmon or sturgeon, rice, and sometimes mushrooms and other ingredients.
Yes, Soviet citizens still stand in interminable lines to buy meat and vegetables. Finding enough foods to provide variety in the diet is a problem. Many families don't have meat very often.
Potatoes are always available, and affordable. Boiled potatoes are often served with dill pickles and sauerkraut. Nothing seems more Russian to me than baked potatoes stuffed with wild mushrooms, unless it is caviar and sour cream. During my few days in Leningrad by myself I had no problem walking, shopping, and going to museums. No problem either, in getting restaurant reservations, either at the state-owned restaurants or the new, private, cooperative ones.
No guides were needed for public transportation or taxis. Getting an English-speaking guide for the world-famous Hermitage Museum was also easy enough with an assist from my hotel clerk, but for ordinary shopping and walking around I managed well without guides or translator.
Many of the best restaurants cater to customers with money from other countries or credit cards.
cup peeled, chopped carrots
1 cup peeled, chopped onions
2 cups peeled, chopped beets
1 tablespoon butter
2 cups beef stock or broth
1 cup cooked beef, chopped (optional)
1 cup finely shredded cabbage
1 tablespoon vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream
cucumber, grated (optional)
cup chopped fresh dill (optional)
Combine carrots, onions, and beets, and barely cover with boiling water. Simmer, covered, about 20 minutes. Add next six ingredients and simmer 15 minutes more. Serve hot and garnish each bowl with sour cream, topped with cucumber or dill. Serve with pumpernickel or sour dough rye bread.