Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Slice Of Cheese

The quality of food in Russia, or at least in the Moscow Oblast, is impressive!

The night I arrived my DOS took me to the local grocery store, called SPAR, to pick up some basics (instant coffee, laundry detergent, beer, etc) and I walked in expecting a Korea-like store, in that everything would be completely insane and bass-ackwards and I would end up purchasing 20 bowls of the Russian equivalent of instant ramyen noodles.

Instead of a Korean-style mega-mart overflowing with strange and exotic products, SPAR was nicely laid out, clean, filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, lots of dairy (Russians love their dairy) and cheeses, a gigantic meat counter and all sorts of delicious breads. Plus there was an entire aisle devoted to wine and vodka (they put those two things together in Russia, apparently). It was very similar to any grocery store back home.

Thankfully my DOS speaks fluent Russian and I didn’t have to open my mouth at the check-out, because my interaction with Russian customer-service has been shaky and problematic. Russian words are long, contain a lot of rolling ‘R’s and ‘ZH’ combos, have stress placed on seemingly random vowels, and are spoken incredibly fast. If you read a Russian word out of a book and apply any sort of English pronunciation to it then you won’t make any sense. For instance, in my phrase book it reads that “thank you” in Russia is “spa-see-bo”. What “thank you” in Russian really sounds like is “spseeb a“. Just to add to the flavour, NOBODY speaks a word of English.

On my fourth day I decided that, since food is a basic need required to sustain life, I should probably buy some. I walked into SPAR and immediately realized that all the meat, salads, cheeses, etc were behind a counter. If I wanted, say, ground beef I would need to ask the deli attendant to measure an amount out for me. I still can’t say “Hello” in a way that Russians understand, so I veered away from the counters and concentrated on the pre-packaged and frozen goods. I ended up buying a pack of cheese slices, a pack of sliced sandwich ham, and a loaf of bread (all the stuff I wanted was behind those damn counters). At the check-out the bored middle-aged woman said “Zevksayaspezhkshettasplabskaya” or something to that effect, to which I responded with a smile and a heartfelt “spseeb a?” She looked at me strangely and tossed a plastic bag at me, took my money and turned to the next customer in line.

When I got home I decided to cram a slice of processed cheese into my mouth. Once again I was expecting a Korean-like rough imitation of Kraft cheese slices, in that they looked like them but tasted much like the plastic wraps they came in. When I bit into the slice, expecting a complete lack of flavour but at least some sort of nutritional content, I was surprised at how delicious it was! It tasted like real cheese! It had a dominant cheddar flavour with undertones of mozzarella. Kraft has nothing on these cheese slices. I quickly ate another and then made myself a ham and cheese sandwich.

One of my favourite foods in Russia so far is blini, which is cheese and ham wrapped in a thin pancake and grilled until all the cheese inside melts (actually blini comes with all sorts of stuff inside, but cheese and ham are my favourite). It is fabulous! The yogurt here is unlike anything in North America; it’s bursting with giant chunks of real fruits and deliciousness. The apples are juicier, the bread is softer, and the meat less fatty than anything in North America. And it’s a lot cheaper, too! My Irish roommate scoffs at the idea that Russian food is superior. “Pah, do they not have cheese in North America?” he asks. “Not processed cheese like this!” I reply as I jam yet another slice in my mouth. If processed cheese in Ireland is superior to this, then I need to include Ireland in my travel plans.

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