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At the beginning of a meal at Twins Garden in Moscow, a small bowl of goat’s milk is placed on your table. You’re not told why, but a lid is placed on top of the bowl and you soon forget about it, as you dive into the tasting menu – one that takes you the length and breadth of Russia, its products and its flavors. Two-thirds of the way through the meal, the milk is brought back into your awareness and the lid is lifted: the white liquid has now become, at room temperature, a cheese.
This is just one of the many culinary tricks the identical twins and chefs Ivan and Sergey Berezutskiys employ at Twins Garden, their newish centrally-located restaurant in the Russian capital, an update on the original Twins, which shuttered last year, and a new entry this year at number 72 on the extended World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Those tricks include dry-aging vegetables – you can enjoy 21-day aged beef with a side of 21-day aged cabbage, in the name of symmetry – and making vegetable wines, which at 6% ABV offer a low-alcohol alternative to a juice pairing – they’re very much a work in progress, a sparkling parsley wine is light and refreshing, a tomato wine less enjoyable, but intriguing none the less. There’s honey, infused with sea urchin caviar, which is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever tasted – in fact I persistently talk about it so much that they give me a small jar to take away with me – an oyster, clam and plankton butter coated entirely with glistening king crab caviar, and goose "jamon".
The twins use 100% Russian products and travel all over the country on research trips, always to new areas, to discover the best and lesser known ingredients. They’ve established logistics all over the country that allow them to bring the finest seafood from the far East of the country, over 9000 km away. Though, experimental in a way, their cuisine harks back to the foundations of Russian cooking: there’s a dish with four different types of potato cooked four ways for example, and sturgeon (sperm, roe and spinal cord in fact), and catfish. They have an immense pride in what they do, and being first, and boast a wine cellar of over 1200 bottles, mostly French and exclusively from Burgundy, but also 60 Russian wines largely from the Black Sea area, and plenty from the old Soviet Bloc.
“We were the first of the chefs in Russia who went to the far North, now it has become fashionable,” says Ivan. “Our second trip was to Altai: this region has never had a war, there is the wildest nature, products have maximum taste and [there are] very interesting ingredients – a huge number of herbs and red deer. The biggest revelation for us happened when we went to the far East. We brought back a number of products (hairy crab, Northern shrimp), which have become popular everywhere in Russia.”
It all started, of course, with the embargo on Western products introduced by the Russian government in 2014 in response to sanctions imposed over the country’s involvement in Ukraine. That, as has been well documented, led many Russian chefs to look inwards to their country’s own products and traditions, kickstarting what has become known as the "New Russian Cuisine" movement. However, chefs still struggled to source good quality vegetables in the winter months – not roots, but vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers. So, the only solution, the Berezutskiys felt, was to build a farm, which now sits on 125 acres in Kaluga, 200 miles to the Southeast of Moscow – hence the "Garden" in the restaurant’s name.
THE TWINS' FARM
They now grow 70% of the fruits and vegetables they use at the restaurant and have been so successful that they have an abundance of produce to play around with, 150 varieties this year, including unique and ancient varieties (the four types of potato mentioned earlier are exclusive to them in fact.) One of their mottos is “Gastronomy begins with a seed.” There are animals too, including cows and goats for milking, chickens, quails, five types of fish, crayfish and bees.
“We are two different people, who think differently… we even have slightly different approaches to cooking,” says Sergey. “One of us is more about naturalness, nature, farming and the other likes the scientific approach, the laboratory part. The combination of these two directions and two views on Russian cuisine makes the project Twins Garden unique in the country.”
Originally from St. Petersburg, Ivan and Sergey passed through some of the world’s best kitchens – elBulli, El Celler de Can Roca, Alinea – before opening their own restaurant in 2014, shortly after Sergey had won the S.Pellegrino Cooking Cup. They won’t tell you who is the nature and who is the science nut – one of those little conspiratorial secrets between twins, perhaps? – but ultimately, it’s teamwork that makes them tick, and they feel the same about the rise of New Russian Cuisine. “If you want to go fast – go alone, if you want to go far – go together”, says Sergey.
I ponder on who might be who as I spread my oyster, clam and plankton butter on soil-baked bread and the king crab caviar pops in my mouth, as I cut into a potato cooked in celery lard, and as I inhale the smoke from fungi torched in bark that transports me to the steps of my own private dacha. It doesn’t matter, I think. There’s a perfect symmetry here.