For many, Russian food remains an enigma, enclosed between stereotypes of the Soviet regime and pre Revolutionary romanticised notions of Russians eating blinis with caviar. The reality is contemporary chefs such as Igor Grishechkin are combining staple products and flavours of their childhood with a modern, more technical and creative lens, creating new Russian cuisine as forward (and historic) as new Nordic.
CoCoCo, St Petersburg’s most talked about restaurant evolved from LavkaLavka, the pioneering Russian farmers distribution group selling seasonal products from farmers in the North-Western region of Russian to restaurants and setting up farm shops. Ardent foodie/restaurateur, Matilda Shnurova, herself passionate about slow food and sustainability happened on some of Grishechkin’s recipes for LavkaLavka on Facebook. She was so impressed that they met up and she quickly asked him to collaborate on her vision of CoCoCo. Locavorism is still a relatively new concept in Russia, but as Shnurova insists: “It is the way forward and how to turn the political and culinary restraints into something positive and creative.”
Honoured to be the first UK food writer to taste CoCoCo’s compelling food which reminded me of the headiest early days of Rene Redzepi at the original Noma, I talked with Igor Grishechkin about the key ingredients of his menu, how they were used traditionally and how he is re-considering them.
“Memory informs a great many of my dishes - explains Igor - I set out to bring restaurant recognition to seemingly humble traditional tastes and nostalgic Russian dishes from my childhood that have been forgotten. I re-evaluate them to create extraordinary haute cuisine. My cooking is about authentic Russian tastes, only everything is modernised with a new identity and, most importantly, a new optimism and joy.”
It amuses him that Nordic and British chefs are crazy about fermentation, salting and curing now, “because Russian chefs learnt pickling on their babushka’s laps out of necessity”.
Traditional russian food (re-invented)
Potatoes were known as the second bread in Soviet times, such was the ubiquity of the hardy tuber which grows more reliably as a crop than grains. 500 pounds of potato are still grown per person per year in Russia and potatoes dominate most dishes from soups to salads, pirozhki to pies.
Baked potatoes were a constant feature of Grishechkin’s childhood, often served with chanterelles, foraged by his mother and salted for conservation. At the restaurant, he pays homage to this favourite Soviet childhood dish, reimagined as a hot starter: small baked potatoes with ultra crisp skins, filled with a mixed of salted lisichki or chanterelle mushroom, mashed potato, mustard and smetna, soured cream. As Grishechkin says: “An everyday treat, made a little more special and sophisticated”. The potato dish is served with fresh, salted cucumbers, pickled onions, dill and parsley and drizzled with aromatic, toasted unrefined sunflower oil.
For a more edgy and playfully unexpected celebration of potato Grishechkin has created home made potato “pasta” cut into “tagliatelle” on the mandolin. It is served with chanterelle mushrooms, mustard and a luscious, tangy smetana, soured cream that adds a freshness to the sauce. “I’m celebrating those tastes at the heart of Russian cuisine and bringing them out of the shadows,” confirms Grishechkin.
Only recently rediscovered as a nutritional superfood in our now grain-friendly Western diet, buckwheat groats are an ancient and key Russian crop dating back to the Middle Ages. Buckwheat lends itself to all manner of preparations. A plant in the same family as rhubarb and sorrel, it is hardier than most cereals and capable of producing two or three crops a year even in the most unfavourable climates.
During the Soviet era buckwheat was roasted on an industrial scale as a way to preserve it, which though it depleted some its nutritional value, meant it acquired a beautiful nutty texture and flavour. Most fundamentally, buckwheat is used to make variations of porridge like kasha which was eaten sweet in the morning and before bed, savoury to accompany soup, fill pies or make the main meal go further. The washed grains are simply heated in boiling salted water until the liquid is absorbed, and served either with milk and honey or butter and slow-cooked onions, mushrooms, soft herbs. Grishechkin fondly remembers kasha and most Russians have similarly affectionate memories of this comfort food.
Savoury kasha iz topora is on Cococo’s tasting menu but wittily and dramatically elevated with green buckwheat and porcini mushrooms. It is usually eaten with a small wooden paddle which Grishechkin presents topped with an edible squid ink butter which the diner stirs into the kasha giving it earthy, complex umami depth.
Roast buckwheat is also used as a garnish on dishes to add vibrancy and contrast of texture and even in ice-cream to accompany apple pie.
A small tree with orange berries that grows wild abundantly in Russian forests . Its’ unusual semi bitter, tangy flavour is between orange zest, apricots, mango and honeysuckle. Grishechkin says its intense and unique flavour "defined my childhood”. Grishechkin drank it as mors, a drink made by mixing pureed berries with a sweet berry stock or as a jam with blinis or in a jelly.
“I couldn’t offer a tasting menu without sea buckthorn which is so irrefutably Russian” laughs Grishechkin who serves mors as an appetite whetting shot with house made kombuchato commence the chef’s table menu.
Probably the fish most prevalent in Russian cuisine and often salted and pickled, or served at celebratory feasts as herring “under a fur coat”. The fur coat references the layers of boiled and grated beetroot, carrots, potatoes and eggs, raw onion and mayo.
To be provocative and confound expectations Grishechkin’s take on “under a fur coat” at CoCoCo replaces the herring with Baltic crab. Grishechkin exlains that he wants to “liberate herring from conventional recipes and let its true flavour sing”. He serves salted herring maki sushi style with sprouts and red caviar and a “tartlet” with bone marrow, pickled vegetables and herring “caviar”.
Creme brulee Cameo
Baked milk, which tastes and looks caramelised, brown almost to the point of toasted is Grishechkin’s absolute favourite childhood dish.
He calls he would eat it like a porridge with Borodinsky bread. With caraway, his chef’s table menu has a more sophisticated “Guriev porridge” made with tapioca too and served with homemade cherry jam.