Thursday's Child: Lunch in St. Petersburg

Thursday, October 20, 2011

This summer, I had the joy of visiting one of the cities I’ve always dreamed of seeing – St. Petersburg, Russia.  Since I returned, everyone has asked what my favourite memory was.  The Hermitage museum, the Church on the Spilled Blood, and Peterhof were all amazing, and hopefully someday I’ll write about them all.  But without a doubt, the most special experience in St. Petersburg was our borscht lunch.

We visited St. Petersburg as part of a Baltic cruise.  In most of the ports, we toured independently.  But it’s not that easy in St. Petersburg.  Legal restrictions make it difficult to even get off the ship without having a prearranged guide who has organized a tourist visa for your stay. 

We had hired a guide and driver through SPb Tours, but I must admit I was still nervous about disembarking.  I had given my family precise and lengthy instructions about how to behave while passing through Russian customs.  (For Seinfeld fans, think of the Soup Nazi with legal control of your passport.)  Then there was the fear of what we’d do if our guide didn’t show up, since we weren’t legally permitted in the country without her.

Our lovely guide Elena, did show up, though.  Since the cost of a private tour was only incrementally more expensive than taking a group tour, we had her to ourselves.  Elena also works as an English teacher, and her facility with the English language was only surpassed by her knowledge and love of the city.  Surprisingly, our driver Max also spoke perfect English.  (We found out later that they’re a couple.)

 After a full morning of sightseeing, they took us to an out-of-the way café for lunch.  We knew the food had to be good, based on the amount of Russian we heard spoken there.  And it was good – sandwiches and the best borscht I’ve ever eaten. (Okay, the only borscht I’ve ever eaten.  I can’t believe I’ve spent my whole life thinking I don’t like borscht.  It was fantastic!)

But what made this the highlight of our time in St. Petersburg was the chance to sit down and talk to two locals.  The six of us crowded around a table meant for four, and we listened as they painted a picture of life in Russia today.  I didn’t know, for example, that if you smile a lot, the Russians will think you’re an idiot.  (I later realized that as I flitted around the city, beaming my perma travel-grin, I was probably close to being hospitalized.)  

As a driver, Max had driven a number of Russian hockey players who previously or currently played in the NHL.  This was big currency with Andrew, who knows every player who’s ever played professional hockey and most of their statistics.

We talked about ladas, and the health care system, and the arts.  We listened quietly as Elena told us about her father’s failing health.  The borscht was great, but it was the company that made our lunch in St. Petersburg unforgettable.
Elena and Max


39 comments:

Jess said...

I've never had borscht, but you make it sound delicious! I love hearing about your travels, and the independent tour guides really seem to make a difference in the level of what you discover about a city (from the places you go to eat, to discussions on health care, etc.). What a special experience~ thanks so much for sharing :)

Mary said...

That bread is too pretty to ever be eaten. I wonder how that is created? I am going to find out! I love seeing the world through your eyes. Your traveling would be a dream come true from this girl. Have a lovely day, Beth!

Marina said...

I would definitely love to go there!

Valerie said...

Beth, I think you just convinced me to give borscht a chance. I've never had a desire to try it (something I seldom feel when it comes to food), but maybe if it looked as beautiful as the photo...

Who knew about the smiling? I'll have to tell my mom about that the next time she tells me I need to do it more often. :D

LDH said...

What a wonderful trip! I so enjoyed visiting with you and reading this post!

Kayte said...

I've gone my whole life thinking I don't like borscht...maybe I should go to Russia and try it just to be sure! Love that dough work, and you can bet I am trying some of that soon with my bread dough here...always looking for something new and fun to do with a loaf you know. Great post. Btw...Thursday's Child...I was born on a Thursday, so maybe that is why I love these posts so very much!!

Beth said...

Thanks for all your kind comments! I never thought I'd try borscht either, but I had to give it a shot when in Russia. I'm glad I did.

And Kayte, I'm actually a Monday's child (even though I really identify with Thursdays)!

Angela Felsted said...

I always wondered about borscht. Cabbage soup doesn't sound so appealing, but isn't everything good with sour cream?

MegSmith @ Cooking.In.College said...

My brother lived in Russia for awhile and he said the food there was incredibly unique and in most cases delicious!

Rita said...

You really make us live your experience; gotta try borscht for sure.
Rita

Nisa said...

Great company will do that. I'm having traveler's envy. What a fantastic trip!

Joanne said...

Now that's the way to see a country, courtesy of a tour by locals. They so know the personality and little gems of places that really bring the culture to life, don't they. Sounds like a wonderful excursion!

Kitchen Riffs said...

Your post brings back memories. A few years ago we took a Baltic cruise, and were in St. Petersburg for 3 days. Incredible sights. Anyway, we had lunch at an "authentic" rustic restaurant that served "traditional" food. The whole meal was great, but to me the best part of the meal was the borscht. I've had it before, of course, but never like what I tasted that day. Beyond delicious. I need to recreate that soup - and you've reminded me! Oh, and the other memorable part of the meal was the vodka. Vodka and wine were included in the meal, and - this being lunch - we were all sticking to wine. Our tour guide seemed disappointed (put out, really) because, as she put it, vodka was the real Russian drink. So of course I had to have some - shots, which I never do! But that's the Russian way, or so the tour guide told me as she traded shots with me (I only had 2! Really! Given the chance I think the tour guide would have kept going). Anyway, thanks for an entertaining post.

Belinda said...

So beautiful - almost too good eat! Soup Nazis...ni-ce.

Simply Life said...

How exciting! I would love to visit there!

Bonnie said...

Beth, No doubt I would have been institutionalized. I have been ask why I always smile. I don't think I have ever seen borscht that is so clear. But then I have never had borscht in Russia. I sounds like a lovely time. Bonnie

Lizzy said...

When you figure out how to make real Russian borscht at home, I hope you'll share...I love beets! And what a great tour...and so glad you toned down your smile to avoid being institutionalized ;)

Carol said...

Sounds like a fantastic trip! I think I need to revisit borscht. My grandma made it when I was a kid and the only thing I liked was the color. I am sure I would love it now!

Ruth said...

I loved St. Petersburg too! My favourite was the boat ride on the Neva... a beautiful sunny day and the scenery was amazing. Oh and we had borscht too. :)

tenaciouslyyours.com said...

Borscht! I love it - my Mother makes a wonderful borscht. I can only imagine what it would be like to actually enjoy it with good company in Russia. What a perfect afternoon :)

Sookie said...

What fun you had! The bread looks so pretty!

comfortablydomestic.com said...

Seems like you get so much more of the "real" story with independent tour guides. The borscht looks wonderful--and I don't think I like borscht, either. ;)

sweetpumpkins.com said...

Sounds like a wonderful trip. Thanks for taking the time to comment on my new blog, I do hope you will come back again. In the meantime I look forward to reading more of your culinary tales.

shaz said...

How fascinating. I would be definitely hospitalised if I travelled through Russia ;P But seriously, the borscht sounds delicious and the company exquisite. What is that lovely looking pastry thing by the way?(At least I think it's pastry?)

Beth said...

Shaz, I'm not sure what it is, other than a beautifully decorated pastry of some kind. I'm not even sure if it's filled. Isn't it gorgeous?

Vicki Bensinger said...

It sounds like a fascinating trip. It makes you wonder if you're thought to be an idiot for smiling, which is a natural occurance, how happy can Russians be? That sounds horrible to me.

Your borscht looks delicious. I havent had any in years but grew up eating it and love it.

Glad you had a nice trip.

Rebecca from Chow and Chatter said...

fun love your travel posts

Sara said...

I'm convinced the best way to see a city is through the food. My husband and I create our own "food tours" and sample little plates at a bunch of different places. Never traveled to Russia, but this makes me want to go!

Christina Lee said...

Aww--thanks for the memories of borscht!! My parents were first generation Americans (And I know I've got that recipe somewhere...)

Miriam said...

Marvelous trip! I'm so glad you got to go and I've never seen a more beautiful loaf of bread or bowl of pink soup :), Miriam@Meatless Meals For Meat Eaters

Janet Johnson said...

My husband would be jealous. He loves Borsch!

And how interesting about the smile thing. Other cultures fascinate me. :)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I've been to St. Petersburg, too. But I went when it was still called Lenningrad. The name changed the following year.

I was an university student at the time. It was an awesome experiment. One I'll never forget. :D

And wow, on that bread. Wish I could do something half as fancy.

Joanne said...

Wow this sounds like an AMAZING experience! I think the only way to really know a city is to spend time with some of the locals...and you did just that!

jillbert said...

That bread looks absolutely gorgeous! I don't think I'd like borscht, but I'd happily eat it in St Petersburg. I hope to make it there someday.

Elaine said...

It sounds like a truly memorable trip. I love the pattern on the bread and the color of the borchst is just lovely. So interesting how the Russians feel about people who smile a lot. I have not heard that before and I work with many diverse communities. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

Sue said...

Though I've heard of it, I don't even know what borscht is?! It looks pretty though(at top?). The bread is gorgeous! Keep smiling:)

Amie Kaufman said...

I've never been to St Petersburg, but it's always been a dream. One day, one day! For now, you've painted a fantastic picture.

sally said...

Sounds like a great trip! Russia is definitely on my list of places that I'd like to visit.

Claudia said...

I have always loved how borscht looks and never how it tastes. I think it would simply taste better in St. Petersburg! The trip sounds wonderful - having a guide to yourself. I long ago fell in love with "Russia" via its literature and the blini at the Russian Tea Room in NYC. A trip to be savored.

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