Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Russian winters are legendary and while few would relish life in this frozen white world, there are benefits. In Russia it is the season of fur coats and this is one place in the world where a fur coat is virtually a necessity and one place where it is not politically incorrect to wear one. Winter is also great for the goddess bodied women of the world; there’s nothing that can’t be neatly buttoned up in a coat. By Russian standards it isn’t even really cold yet, but the coats are buttoned and the furs are out and my, my, the furs are gorgeous. Even plain women look divine in fur. Or maybe the fur is such a distraction that everything becomes something of a visually enticing blur. Or maybe the genetic memory switch is flicked and we are attracted because, quite simply, none of us would be here if our ancestors had not worn fur ‘coats.’ Not if any of your ancestors came from this part of the world that is.

But, looks aside, there’s another reason why fur is so popular here and that is because you only have to put one on, even if it is a test run and you can’t afford to buy it, for reasons of economics or political correctness, to know that it is warmer than anything. Beyond the practicalities it is a delight to the senses. And they are light. They may look heavy but they are not.
Interestingly, the world’s biggest fur producers are the ever so pragmatic Danes and the ever so fiscally conscious Americans. The ever so politically correct Canadians are in there as well. Much of the fur used these days is farmed although some wild fur is still available from a number of countries including the US, Canada, Russia, China and, gulp, that parody, sorry, paragon, of virtue, New Zealand.
I can’t see the difference between farming animals for fur, food or footwear given that in every instance they end up dead. Sure minks are cute, but so are lambs and rabbits. More importantly, I think, is how animals are treated in the process and if it’s any consolation, a farmed mink gets a much, much, much better life than does a farmed chicken, or pig for that matter. And mink, like rabbits, have been more often than not classed as vermin.
Why, you may ask, do minks and other furry animals get it so good? Because contented, well-fed, healthy animals produce the best fur. As someone who has long believed it was unwise to eat the flesh of miserable animals or birds because, well, it can’t be very good for you, I can only say it seems logical to assume that if unhappy animals produce inferior fur then they also produce inferior meat. The difference is that it is easy to see the damage done with cruel fur farming practices in a way that it is not with cruel food farming practices.
You may gather, I’m with the Russians on this one, where the focus is more on not freezing to death than the question of making use of fur from cute animals. There’s a reason why Russians wear those funny-looking fur hats and it’s called survival ….. or, making sure your ears don’t turn black and drop off.
We were seriously grateful for our funny fur hats the other night when we walked across the road to an Argentinian restaurant we had visited previously with a Russian colleague. Well, we did not walk across the road but under it, the ten and twelve lanes of traffic on the major Moscow roads, necessitating underpasses if anyone is to go anywhere and survive the experience. Sadly, there are too many Russian pedestrians who do not.
On our first visit to Le Gaucho we stopped at a bar around the corner for a drink. It was decorated to look like an underground mine, and, on a Thursday night, was packed to the rafters in the same way that London pubs are crammed in the hours between finishing work and heading for the tube. The conversations may have been in Russian but the rest of it looked pretty much the same.
The Argentinian restaurant is a popular place every night of the week it seems and unless you have a booking, there can be a long, long wait with nothing much to do but drink vodka. The menu is, as one would expect, pretty much meat, meat and more meat, in that South American way. But they did have nice bread and good salad to go with it.
The gourmet platter, which was ordered for us the first time we went, was pretty much what it said on the menu: Guts and udder. It took me a while to identify the udder as the calamari like slices threaded onto a skewer. The kidney, liver, tongue and sweetbread looked just as they did when they started out in the now extinct animal, except for the charred stamp of the barbecue hotplate.
It was interesting, it was novel and it was pretty much tasty but we did not finish it. On the second visit, ordering for ourselves, we decided that one serve of assorted offal is probably enough, and so we opted for steak, only to find that what we got was …… you guessed it, Guts again! Either my finger slipped when pointing to the menu or it’s a joke the kitchen likes to play on crazy foreigners.
Despite the fact that there were enough staff around with more than passable English we decided to take what we had been given and get on with eating it …. perhaps with a little extra salt, something that is easy to do in Russia because here, the salt shaker is always the one with the two, three or four holes, while pepper, is in the pot with one hole. A Dutch friend tells me it is the same in the Netherlands.
It’s a trivial observation but it fascinates me all the same. No doubt when you inhabit the ‘skirts’ of the Arctic salted food is something of a staple, or at least was, and the taste for salt that much greater.
Needless to say the vodka we drank, while perched up at the bar, waiting for a table, and an excellent bottle of Penfolds 389 with the meal, made even the Guts Gourmet Platter more enticing that it may have otherwise been second time around. I’m beginning to see the attractions of vodka! You may need guts to drink vodka but you definitely need vodka to eat guts.
It’s an amazing world. There we are, in an Argentinian restaurant, in the middle of Moscow, drinking Australian wine and eating Argentinian, and yes, Australian meat. The Argentinians, who are serious about their meat, clearly consider Aussie meat to be the next best thing. Russian beef, so I have read, is stringy!
What is good here though is fish. Sturgeon, something of a national fish for all sorts of reasons that caviar-lovers understand, has a texture akin to pork and a mild taste in fish terms. It is traditionally served boiled and is absolutely delicious, served in firm, meaty slices with vegetables. The caviar is of course wonderful and much cheaper than elsewhere. Although over-fishing and poaching now have the sturgeon under threat and caviar may well go the way of such ancient delicacies as char-grilled mammoth ears if something is not done. I know which would be the greater loss and the more reprehensible given that mammoths were done in by an ‘act of nature’ (in other words God’s fault) and the sturgeon face the threat of being done in by human acts AGAINST nature deriving from greed on the part of those with power and desperation on the part of those without power.(In other words, our fault)
But the evil twins of desperation and greed have long been with us and remain so, in too many respects, in Russia today, as the locals will tell you even if you don’t ask. Hopefully though there are better days ahead, both for fish and humans.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, may be returning to some of the old, less democratic ways, but as far as the average Russian is concerned he has brought stability to the country and restored it’s national pride. The development of Russia’s gigantic gas reserves has also played a big part in all of this ….. money, as always, oils the ‘wheels’ of any nation, but Russians, long used to being told what to do are happy enough to have Putin tell them what to do as long as they have food on the table and a few coins in their pockets.
It’s a view which most people take and understandably so. Russia has changed and it continues to change but it does so in its own way. It’s easy to judge its progress with a too critical eye and forget that even with the excesses of the Soviet era, Russia has come a very long way, and, more to the point, the distance it has travelled needs to be measured against where it spent the previous five hundred years.
Russia, or Rossiya, as its people know it, is a country steeped in its ancient history and its new dreams and while it may wear its new ‘coat’ of democracy lightly, it still walks upon a path of once unimaginable freedoms.


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1:27 am  

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