“Let’s cook borscht,” my mother said one evening. She had come to visit me in Rome, and was tired of eating pasta. I gladly supported the idea. Three months without Russian food had been tough. We went to a Russian grocery store in the Vatican area, “Galychyna,” to find ingredients for the borscht, a traditional Russian soup.
The small shop was crammed with a variety of Russian delicacies. On the right, there were Russian chocolates, Alyonka, familiar to every Russian-speaking child. We noticed a refrigerator with typical Russian seafood – salted herring, beluga, caviar and Kamchatka crabs. Right next to it there were a variety of Ukrainian and Siberian dumplings – with cherries, potatoes, mushrooms, meat and Russian ricotta cheese. On the other side, wild berries for traditional Russian tea shimmered with the bright tints of red and orange. The smell of sweet milk chocolate drifted in the air mixing with the tangy scent of smetana (sour cream).
The atmosphere in the shop transported us to an older Russia, or better yet, the USSR. Everything seemed to be made in the style of the old Soviet food store called Sel’po, which means, “Village shop.” One usually found food as well as other household goods – books, cosmetics, vinyls or kitchen supplies – each corner stuffed with products in seemingly random form. At Galychyna, fish is found next to hand cream shelf, while tea is close to chocolate. Weird for a foreigner, charming for a Russian.
Stores like this no longer exist in Russia. They have been replaced by large supermarkets. “Sometimes Russians come here not only to buy our food but also to get back to their childhood”, the shop owner reflected. Smiling Yuriy Gagarin seemed to agree from a poster on the wall.
In fact, Russian grocery stores can be found in many European countries, as they are always in high demand from Russian-speaking immigrants. In Germany alone there are over 1000 Russian stores and their annual income is nearly 300-500 million euro. “It doesn’t matter for how long you live abroad. You can never really get used to bizarre outlandish dishes”, says Tatiana, a customer at Galychyna.
Interestingly, some of the products sold here in Rome cannot even be found in Russia anymore. “Those sweets ‘Little Bear in the North’! I used to eat them when I was a pioneer!” my mother laughed, her eyes shining with nostalgia. We looked at many other products with outdated names – they sounded amusing to me. This is all because many Russian products sold here are actually produced in Germany by Russian immigrants, who miss their cherished food. These manufacturers often live in the past and name their products as they were called during their childhood: “Pushkin’s fairy tales”, “herring for Vodochka” or “mother-in-law’s pickles”. This last item, for example, comes from a well-known Soviet custom, that a bride’s mother always tries to impress the future husband with the various dishes on her table. Lemonade “Barsik”, with a picture of a ginger cat also made us laugh – Barsik is a typical cat name in Russian-speaking families.
“It was a nice and safe time,” said my mother with sadness, still observing the chocolate bars. “We never had to worry about anything. We went to the cinema theater, ate plombir (Soviet vanilla ice cream) and drank fruit lemonade. The only concern we had was not to stain our red pioneer ties with it”.
Galychyna is not only a good place to find ingredients for borscht; but it is also a place to socialize with fellow countrymen. Often there are Russians, Ukrainians or Belarusians hanging out at the shop and discussing local news or memories of old life with the owners or other customers. My mother and I instantly got into one of such conversations. I was listening to the fascinating tales about “the tastiest milky buns in world,” about the strawberry chewing gum that, “felt like a real strawberry from the garden,” and a mysterious pastry, “chocolate potato.” Part of me was sad that I would never have an opportunity to try any of these in my life.
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