What to buy in Russia: your cheat sheet for best souvenirs (Part 2)
Updated: Nov 6, 2018
In previous part of souvenir shopping guide I mentioned a bunch of memorable items you could bring back home from Russia to upgrade your cupboard or wardrobe. Now let’s turn to an equally important area to please - your (or your friends and family’s) bellies. A great advantage of gifting food is knowing that it is something which is more likely to be found useful than yet another miniature balalaika or a hideous pair of valenki.
There are quite a lot of edible as well as drinkable options that will suit well for different recipients and occasions. Shopping in a supermarket for traditional foods can be daunting though not only because you might have no clue what is in front of you on the shelf. But also, because there might not be anyone who could explain to you the difference between 3 000 types of vodka in English. In order to clear some things up and provide a bit of inspiration for your shopping list, let’s dive right into it without much further ado.
Shall we get the most obvious out of the way? A good bottle of vodka is surely a nice souvenir to gift to someone who can appreciate quality liquor. It really does make a great difference quality-wise if the vodka is made in Russia or if it is something found on a shelve of your local supermarket with a tacky Gorbatschov label stuck on it. True what they say about trying alcohol in the country of its origin being the best experience. Unless it is counterfeit stuff of course.
To avoid being scammed always buy vodka in a licensed store. Any large supermarket chain would be fine (Perekrestok, Azbuka Vkusa, and such), or a specialized wine and liquor store (like Aromatny Mir). When it comes to price, vodkas above 300 rub can normally be trusted to be of good quality. Here are just some of the brands that can be trusted are: Beluga, Russian Standard (Русский Стандарт), Tsarskaja (Царская), Arkhangelskaya (Архангельская).
Reach out for a fancier bottle if you would like to like to make a snazzy present. The taste though is pretty much the same as cheaper sorts, unless you are a skilled vodka connoisseur. Some brands do really nice gift sets as well which come with vodka shot glasses. A lot of my non-Russian friends are just obsessed with Beluga shot glasses we have at home and constantly ask how to get hold of the same ones.
A couple of rules for vodka drinking as a bonus:
have it as a shot, well chilled;
don’t embark on drinking it without having a proper meal;
say a hearty toast (for health – ‘za zdorovje’ (not to confuse with a Polish version ‘na zdorovje’), for the evening – ‘za vecher’, for beauty – ‘za krasotu’, etc)
A lot of Russian households buy caviar as a delicacy treat for special occasions or celebrations. It is common to serve it on a slice of buttered bread, or with blinis (crepe-like pancakes). To be honest, I haven’t really met a Russian yet who doesn’t like caviar. Whereas my foreign friends are divided into 2 camps. First one being: ‘Salted fish eggs? No, thanks’. And the second camp going: ‘OMG caviar, can I have more?’
If you’re not sure which camp you belong to and want to find out before stocking up on Food of Gods to bring home, my advice would be to head to a restaurant of Russian cuisine first. Take a look at my Moscow Essentials itinerary shall you be looking for restaurants inspiration.
In a dining establishment setting you have all chances of being served good quality stuff as well as properly presented. Wash your caviar down with a shot of ice cold vodka and level up to advanced experience.
Once the decision to shop for caviar is made, some of the following recommendations can come handy:
● Price: Caviar can’t be cheap. The price point for red caviar starts at 400-500 rub per 100g, black caviar: 2500 - 4000 rub per 50g. Buying anything cheaper is a suspicious deal and risk of purchasing caviar imitation or illegal or counterfeit product. And you don’t want any of that, do you?
● Storage: It must be kept in the fridge in a shop. Otherwise, please don’t go near.
● Dates: Ask for the date caviar was packaged. Spawning time of most salmon species is between the months of July and October. Science of deduction will help you figure out that the freshest caviar would be manufactured and packaged during those months of current year. As for black caviar, with sturgeon farming being one of the main sources, it can be produced all year round.
● Origin: The biggest share of certified red caviar comes to Russian shops from the Far East region (Sakhalin, Kuril islands, Kamchatka, Magadan). Any other geographical origins are questionable.
● Taste and smell: red caviar tastes salty, but not too salty, and smells just like fresh fish. Black caviar by contrast has just a touch of subtle see scent and tastes lightly-salted.
● Packaging: best to go for glass. Not only it prevents roes from being squashed, it also makes assessing the product appearance possible, which you can’t do with tinned product.
● Points of sale: same as with vodka, you won’t go wrong with trusted large supermarket chains, or specialized caviar shops. Otherwise, there is a risk to come across imitation (made of seaweed or god knows what) being passed off as real caviar.
●Beware of Customs: Here is the information that Moscow Sheremetyevo airport publishes in their customs section: maximum 5kg of red caviar and 250g of black caviar can be brought out of Russia. In regard to how much caviar can be imported into your country, please check your local regulations.
An unexpected one, huh? I guess the surprise effect of the 'Russian wine' notion makes the present a little bit more exotic. And very drinkable as well, if you approach the matter of choosing a bottle with all seriousness.
The grapes for Russian wines are grown in sunny southern regions of Krasnodar and Crimea and range from sauvignon blanc and riesling to malbec and shiraz. The industry however had been in decline for a while until the beginning of 2000s. Hence, buying Russian wine is indeed a relatively new trend even for Russian wine lovers. It might be due to ever jumpy currency fluctuations that make wines produced abroad become more and more ridiculously expensive, or just that the efforts of local wine producers have finally become noticeable by the wine geeks.
Whatever the reasons, the new hype has equally affected the shopping carts of the Russians, as well as most of the restaurants in the capital which are now happily stocking up on the produce of homeland winemakers. And thankfully, we are witnessing the times to become extinct when a substance in the bottle labelled Sovetskoye Shampanskoye was considered to be a legit Champagne by those putting this sugary stuff on New Years table.
As far as the brand options are, if you want to go for the most hyped (and some of the most expensive) brand, reach out for the bottles with UPPA Winery label. Its creator, Pavel Shvets is an award winning sommelier who took some of the finest wine making traditions into his production in Crimea. All wine is biodynamic, just what all of us love so much nowadays
Those fancy bottes don’t come cheap, with price tags starting at 25 eur per each. I can suggest some of the more wallet friendly alternatives which also make a decent present. You can go for Burnier (Бюрнье), Lefkadia (Лефкадия) or Vedernikov (Ведерниковъ) wineries.
Alternatively, direct your attention to a shelf with Georgian wines. Centuries-old traditions of wine-making make this region more than a trustworthy producer of high quality alcoholic beverages. Georgian wines are represented quite well in the supermarkets and wine stores of Russian capital, so you will be spoiled for choice.
As with Russian wines, it is the red sorts of Georgian that are on average more highly rated, so I recommend checking out their well-known drinks based on Kindzmarauli, Sapevari and Khvanchkara grapes. As far as the price goes, a good bottle should cost around at least 800-1000 RUB mark. Among brands that can be trusted are Chateau Mukhrani, Pheasant's Tears, Dakishvili Family Selection just to name a few.