Last summer, after touring Moldova, we crossed the border with Ukraine and headed towards Odessa. The goal wasn’t really Odessa itself, which I had already visited, but a remote village called Vylkove (Vilkovo, in Russian).
Vylkove takes its name from vilka, which means fork, on account of its location in the Danube Delta. Although the town is nicknamed “The Venice of Ukraine”, you’d have to be blind or seriously drunk to confuse the two. Don’t expect any sumptuous palace, carnival, or herds of tourists; Vylkove is just a little fishing village.
Today I’m starting a new travel series: Ukrainian Snapshots. I’ve been to Ukraine many times over the past ten years. Back in the days before Aerosvit went bankrupt, the New York-Kiev direct flight was a convenient and reasonably affordable option whenever I planned to visit the former Soviet Union. Before the opening of its new terminal, Moscow’s notoriously disorganized Sheremetyevo did not have a transit zone and therefore required going through the masquerade of the visa process (until recently, your typical Russian embassy/consulate was a kind of cour des miracles where aspiring tourists proffered fake invitations, bogus travel insurance, variable amounts of money, and countless hours of their time to a grumpy and/or corrupt clerk, all to receive a piece of paper pompously called a visa). By contrast, Ukraine could be visited without a visa, and little Borispol is 30 minutes away from Kiev’s center (no contest with the 1-2 hours it takes to get from the airport to the city center in Moscow).
For this reason, and also because some of Ukraine’s less touristy destinations are more conveniently accessed from neighboring countries if you happen to already be visiting them, many of my trips to Ukraine were quite short; a couple days here and there. My last week-long trip actually goes back to summer 2006 (Crimea). So instead of presenting my Ukrainian travel stories in any particular order, I’ll focus each of my posts on a given place and point in time. As usual, don’t expect me to review many mainstream touristic curiosities — this is not a travel guide. I might also start another travel series in parallel. After all, with Ukraine International Airlines recently reviving the New York – Kiev route, there might very well be more snapshots to come in the future.
I’ll kick off this series with an anecdote: the Kiev-Odessa flight and the Tupolev 134. This may not have anything to do with food, but it sure qualifies as an adventure.
In my previous Moldovan Impressions, we explored the local culinary traditions, visited the wine cellars, and discovered the renegade republics. We will soon leave Moldova to move on to stories of neighboring Ukraine, but before that, a little digestive is in order.
In capitalist societies, class inequality has led to Cognac being the privilege of the rich (and hip hop culture). Countries that were not so long ago devoted to socialism have been quick to try to replicate the Western lifestyle, in their rush to establish market economies (and hip hop culture). Meanwhile, bourgeois distilleries have ensured their monopoly through an appellation contrôlée — a rather dubious one, when you think of it, for a beverage whose double distillation most certainly erases any trace of terroir.
In the Soviet Union, however, the Politburo and the proletariat shared the same luxuries throughout the Empire. If brandy production started in both the Caucasus and Bessarabia at the end of the 19th century, one can thank communism for the spirit’s true democratization. Indeed, in 1978, the Ministry of the Food Industry decreed that every Soviet Republic must produce its own ordinary “cognac”. In Moldova, one producer of both the aged brandy and the democratic version (called Белый Aист, “White Stork”), was Kvint, in Tiraspol.
Our mock tourist guide of Transnistria continues! After the history and travel logistics sections, let’s talk about the attractions, the gastronomy, and the souvenirs.
I have to warn you: “pretty” isn’t the first adjective that comes to mind when thinking of Transnistria and its capital city, Tiraspol. And I dare anyone to name a Transnistrian national dish. Don’t expect to find much Soviet memorabilia for sale, either. There aren’t enough tourists for that. So, why visit?
9 November 1989: the Berlin Wall falls, marking the end of the division between the East and the West. Within a year, the Eastern Bloc ceases to exist.
27 August 1991: following the failed Soviet August Coup, Moldova, like most other republics in the USSR that haven’t done so yet, declares its independence.
8 December 1991: the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus secretly meet to declare the Soviet Union dissolved.
25 December 1991: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly resigns as the President of the USSR, and that office ceases to exist.
The communist dream is over. Everywhere across the Empire, the red flag is taken down, statues of Lenin dismantled, the Hammer and Sickle emblems on buildings and monuments desecrated.
Well, almost everywhere.
With only three and a half million inhabitants and a territory smaller than the New York metropolitan area, one might think that Moldova doesn’t have any ethnic conflicts. The composition of the population seems pretty straightforward: 70% Moldovans, followed essentially by ethnicities from neighboring countries, such as Ukrainians, Romanians, and Russians. Ah yes, Russia… Sure enough, this last bunch, concentrated in the border region of Transnistria, didn’t really welcome Moldova’s independence when the Soviet Union collapsed. If you check on a map, Russia’s not even a neighbor of the new state.
But Transnistria is a story for another day. In this post, I’m looking at a much lesser-known dissension, and the fate of a handful of irreducible freedom-loving, eastward-looking people of mysterious decent, who once declared themselves independent even one month before Transnistria. The Gagauz!
Last time, I took a look at Moldovan food as it’s served in restaurants. Since Moldovans cook at home a lot more often than they dine in restaurants, let’s also visit the Central Market in Chișinău, where many provisions can be bought.
Founded in 1825, Piaţa Centrală is located right in the city center, not far from the bus station (a proximity resulting in double the bustling crowds). It’s not as impressive as the markets of Tbilisi or Tashkent, but it does give a good idea of Moldovan cuisine. To complement the pictures, I will also mention some recipes from Sergey Donika’s Moldovan Cuisine. With 493 recipes, this cookbook contains more stuff than I’ll ever cook in my lifetime.
In my previous posts (here and here), I’ve talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly in Moldovan winemaking — probably with more emphasis on the ugly than the good. But what about the food? Is there a good reason why you probably can’t name a single Moldovan dish, or have I found some hidden gem? Here’s a sample of Moldovan food, as served in some of the better restaurants in the country.
As in many former Soviet republics, if you’re an aspiring restaurateur who wants to open a high-end joint in Moldova, you typically pitch Italian or French cuisine instead of the local grub; or, at least, claim to do so in your advertisements, even if neither you nor your cooks have ever set foot in Western Europe. I suspect that many locals would dismiss my restaurant picks as tourist traps, where waiters in ridiculous costumes serve overpriced everyday dishes and bored fiddlers play “Ochi chyornye” for patrons that don’t quite get that Chișinău “isn’t part of Russia anymore”. And the locals would be partly right, except that there aren’t any reasonable alternatives (don’t worry, I’ll talk about the unreasonable alternatives in another post).
In my last post, I started reviewing the wine caves of Moldova. There are many other wineries in the country, and Sommelier‘s 2011 article here gives an optimistic but good overview of the rising stars (you’ll notice that Cricova is the only “cave” winery mentioned). Purcari, in particular, produces a few reds worth tasting. But trying these wines outside of Moldova might be a challenge. Despite what the article says, I can hardly find any importer or retailer. Even Russians are out of luck, since the government, in another demonstration of its carrot-and stick-approach, has decided once again to ban the import of Moldovan wine.
Anyway, back to the wine caves…
My latest summer peregrinations took me to the little Republic of Moldova (3.5 million inhabitants). My friends and family asked me, several times and with more than a hint of incredulity, what there is to see in Moldova. The short answer is: a few things, but not much. Because the trip was mostly uneventful, it would be an exaggeration to call this new series of posts “Moldovan Adventures”, as I did for my Caucasus stories. “Impressions” seems more appropriate. And in this first entry, I will talk about Moldovan wine.
The 2007 edition of Lonely Planet seriously claims that “Moldovan wines routinely grab highest honours at European tastings and beyond”. What they don’t mention is that the tastings in questions took place in Romania and Belarus. Not exactly the most authoritative nations on the subject!
There are certainly many wineries scattered throughout Moldova, but the main draw is to those with one very specific factor: the wine caves. In the second half of last century, former limestone mines were converted into galleries of gigantic proportions in order to store millions of bottles of the national production, taking for granted the optimistic adage that wine gets better with age.
So here’s a tour of the country’s cave wineries, where the wine isn’t necessarily the main attraction. There are three of them, as far as I know, and I’ve also added a fourth location that offers a similar experience in a much smaller underground cellar. Expect the unexpected. There will be wineries that don’t make wine, wine that’s not the product of fermentation, champagne cellar mold that smells like feces, people who don’t know what they’re talking about, and kitsch by the ladleful.