St Petersburg was built as a monument to Russia’s desire to open itself to Europe and be part of the fabled “west”. It was built in less than a decade, in the midst of a swamp, by courtiers Peter the Great had compelled to create residences in the new capital.
On closer inspection, many of these hurriedly slapped together palaces that looked majestic at a distance showed their cracks in the painted plaster that held them together. The buildings “had the air of gigantic models, abandoned on the site intended to be hereafter occupied by more substantial structures”, according to a memoir by William Kinglake, a traveller to the city in the 1840s.
The city of authors such as Dostoevsky and Pushkin has the distinction of being one of the most written about in Europe. Many of the palaces make an appearance in Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Dom restaurant, on Moika Embankment, is one of the most interesting new restaurants in St Petersburg with a contemporary Russian menu. Try the deer fillet with chokeberry sauce, and a glass of old-fashioned bread wine flavoured with garlic and pepper.
In imperial Russia, game was the food of the aristocracy, and hunting was heavily controlled. Deer was a dish of the aristocracy, of princes, country gentlemen and boyars. Chokeberries are a recent addition to the Russian table. Native to North America, they gained popularity in eastern Europe in the 19th century due to their reputation for lowering blood pressure. Now Poland is the world’s largest producer.
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True connoisseurs know that grain-distilled bread wine is the original vodka for the Russian people. What we know as vodka today was a comparatively new creation using German distilling technology in the 19th century. Vodka used to refer to bread wine — it is the diminutive of the word for “water”.
Photographs: Dreamstime; Semen Kuzmin; Jon Bower Russia/Alamy; John Warburton-Lee Photography/Alamy