On our first day in Saint Petersburg, at our very first meal, Elizabeth presciently pondered: “how much smetana can a girl eat?” As she would learn over the next 72 hours, there’s no limit to how much smetana — that’s sour cream — a Russian can consume.
Henry Ford famously said you could get the Model T in any color as long as it was black. Russian food is served under a similar principle. It either comes with or without smetana. “With” means a healthy ladle of the stuff is already in the dish, likely floating in your soup, just waiting for a good stir. “Without” smetana means you get it on the side. But make no mistake about it: you’re getting smetana.
That first evening, the smetana was the traditional accompaniment to our zakuski (appetizers) of blini with red caviar. The following day, at lunch, we found a thick creamy spoonful of the stuff in our schi, a traditional Russian cabbage soup that rivals the more internationally celebrated borscht — transforming the murky brown into a, well, even murkier brown. The rich result was, to borrow a phrase from David Chang, ugly delicious.
The soup itself is billed as a cabbage soup, but vegetarians beware, because our version was based on a beef broth, with chunks of stew meat floating amongst the veggies. A version we had a couple of days later, at a vegetarian restaurant, was downright vegan — that is, until we dumped some smetana in it. It must be tough to be vegan in a country where the sour cream is always — ALWAYS! — within reach.
“How much smetana can a girl eat?”
As we ate our way up and down the former Russian capital, smetana popped up everywhere and in everything. Its work wasn’t limited to savory dishes, like soups, blintzes, and dumplings. A jack of all trades, smetana also found its way onto vareniki (sweet dumplings) and sirniki (pancakes made from cottage cheese). Served with a little sugar, serniki make a wonderful, light breakfast or dessert — light, that is, until you spread some smetana on them.
I grew up on these sweet-savory cottage cheese pancakes, which my aunt Sasha often serves for breakfast (her version is studded with raisins for a little extra natural sweetness)
The Russian obsession with smetana reached its zenith one morning at Biblioteka, a cafe on Nevsky Prospect. A dozen or so cakes were already on display and our eyes wandered from one gorgeous confection to another until we both caught a glimpse of our obvious choice: smetannik! A simple layered cake with a sour cream filling.
What’s better than five layers of smetana??
No trip to Russia is complete without pelmeni — my death row meal — which is why I made sure to have it three times (plus Georgian khinkali for good measure). Pelmeni are Russian meat dumplings, said to have originated in the Urals, and they are the ultimate comfort food. They’re typically boiled and served with smetana, butter, and dill, a.k.a. the holy trilogy of Russian condiments. Or they can also be served in a delicate bouillon, the preparation we opted for at our final lunch. But no matter how you get it, there’s still the ubiquitous smetana to remind you that your pelmeni aren’t complete without a cool dollop of tangy cream.
Russia’s other popular dumpling is vareniki (identical to Polish pierogi). While they can be found filled with any number of savory ingredients, like potatoes or mushrooms, these dumplings are oftentimes stuffed with a fruit filling or cottage cheese and served as dessert. Ours came with sour cherry preserves and, to answer your question, yes, we topped them with smetana.
Our final night in Saint Petersburg found us at Cococo. I’ll admit to having had a mild dose of skepticism walking into this sleek restaurant, housed inside the Sofitel, just a block from Saint Isaac’s Cathedral. Modern Russian? When did that become a thing?
What followed was our best meal of the trip. My cocktail? It had caviar in it! For zakuski, there were waffles made to taste like classic dark Russian rye bread, rolled up and stuffed with sprats and dusted with dill — a bourgeois one-bite take on a classic proletariat snack — and light-as-air whitefish donuts (you read that correctly). Dinner included a revamped take on chicken Kiev — this time stuffed with foie gras — with potato puree and a wild mushroom reduction. The clever dish was made to resemble a dessert pear with a chocolate and vanilla sauce.
But the undisputed showstopper, the pièce de résistance, was a dessert playfully titled “Mother’s Favorite Flower.” The presentation consisted of a knocked-over flower pot (dark chocolate), soil (brownie crumble) spilling everywhere, with a plant made of mint and an edible flower. The pot itself was filled with vanilla ice cream with a hint of chili (your “punishment”) and a mousse made of halvah and… wait for it… you knew it was coming… smetana!!
Because — modern or not — you’re still in RUSSIA!!