Moscow Centre

Second exhibition day in Moscow. The show is busy and we have a brisk flow of visitors to our stand, most of whom speak nothing but Russian! This looks like being a good market – several large companies and prices at a decent enough level despite a strong Chinese presence (China gets tariff-free entry into Russia – preference for ex-Commie comrades!) We also meet a couple of potential distributors who could help us handle the smaller fry. These give us some instant analyses of the Russian market: it is said that 80% of business is done in the Moscow area, 10% around St. Petersburg and just 10% in the remainder of this vast country! Still, some of our visitors come from places out in the sticks: do Tatarstan and Ydmurtia sound exotic enough?

Evening arrives and the hungry exhibitors need sustenance: I select a restaurant near the centre of Moscow, a little way from the hotel. We haven’t yet been to the city centre, so we decide on a pre-dinner stroll, but take first the fabled Moscow Metro! The tickets cost a mere seven roubles (€ 0.20), allowing unlimited travel in the vast network. It is the Moscow rush hour, so we follow the crowds of people down fast-moving wooden escalators. Prospekt Mira station has lots of marble, and quaint Soviet hammer-and-sickle decoration. The metro trains themselves are clean, but somewhat elderly, rather resembling 1960s London Underground rolling stock. The metro map is clear and the cyrillic is transcribed in Latin characters, but station signs are few and far between, so counting the number of stops is a good idea! We get out three stops along at Kitai-Gorod, “Chinatown”. On the platform we are faced with a puzzle: there are several exits and all the signs are incomprehensible, which do we choose? We take our pick and inevitably it leads to the wrong side of the square. Never mind, it gives us a chance to look at the many trading stalls set up in the station, selling everything from electronics to piles of onions!

A few minutes walk in the streets lined with classical architecture buildings (ministries?) and we then find ourselves in Krasnaya Ploschhad – aka Red Square! The nerve-centre of Russia is a vast rectangular area, bordered by the Kremlin walls and the GUM department store on the long ends, and the many multi-coloured domes of St. Basil’s church and the National History Museum on the short ends. The night time illumination makes the square even more imposing. I can well imagine the empty platforms flanking Lenin’s mausoleum filling up with Soviet grandees to watch the October Revolution parades as in the old newsreels!

We go round the lofty Kremlin walls along the gardens, and pass by the Imperial Riding School – the Manezh – that was badly damaged in a fire just a couple of days ago. The smell of smoke still hangs in the air and firemen are still shoring up the walls of the building. Moscow gossip has it that the fire was started deliberately so as to redevelop the place with an underground carpark and shopping centre! Naturally the owners, Moscow city council, deny any such project…

We soon arrive at this evening’s restaurant: Karetny Dvor at 52 ulitsa Povarskaya. This is an Azerbaijani restaurant, with several small rooms and decorated with hanging plants. Fortunately the menu is partly in English and the waiter is a cheerful chap, so our order gets through quickly. Azeri cooking, as the language, has strong Turkish influences – lots of starters, green salads, cucumbers, aubergines and mixed kebabs to follow. Two unusual dishes stand out: a kind of ravioli with a vegetable filling, and satsivi, chicken breast marinated in a creamy garlic sauce. My companions are not too fond of exotic food, so we did not order the mutton testicles grilled on the spit… To drink, we try a bottle of Georgian red wine, supposedly the best available, but gag on the rough, acid taste! Next come a few excellent Baltika beers, but the best of all to accompany this meal is a bottle of Russky Standard vodka! Goes very smoothly down the throat! To round the evening off, a couple of baklava sweets. Recommended!

Moscow exhibition

First exhibition day in Moscow: after a Pythonesque interlude when our stand was occupied by a squad of workmen wanting to add extra letters to our company name on the fascia, we are ready to go! I am pleasantly surprised by the quality of the show: stands both large and small are obviously designed with care and some attention to effective presentation – well up to so-called “Western” standards. The visitors too are mostly professional, many technically well prepared. Curiously, there are also elderly ladies with woolly hats and string bags, who go round collecting samples of any kind.

In the spare moments we can observe the latest Russian fashions: black leather jackets are all the rage for men, whilst women range from the miniskirted with very high heels (I wonder how they walk in the slush outside…) to the downright dumpy. Whilst I manage to pick up the basic Russian words: spasibo, zdrastujte, da, nyet, voda, pivo, vodka, I still have difficulty in interpreting the cyrillic signs. An interpreter is absolutely essential here as very few Russians appear to speak any other language than their own, and even the business cards are only in cyrillic! Fortunately Tanya, our interpreter, is an efficient, dynamic lady who picks up the basics of our products quickly and we get a lot of visitors. I wonder how we will manage to pursue the contacts we are making here!

In the evening, the fair organisers have organised an reception for the exhibitors. It is held in a former Imperial Army officers’ club not far from the exhibition. It has a large ballroom, very grand, all columns and chandeliers. Here I take part in a very strange buffet: there are a dozen lines of long tables, with everyone standing still, no milling about, no socialising apart with your immediate neighbours, and everyone just eating from what was placed in front. We found this all very odd and odder still that people glared at us if we helped ourselves with food from other tables! A major breach of Russian etiquette? Would we have been drummed out of the regiment in Imperial days? The questions remain unanswered, but being a roving gastronaut I have to sample the dishes: excellent sandwiches with smoked salmon, sturgeon and red caviar, assorted pickled vegetables, large mushroom vol-au-vents, little bread rolls stuffed with a spicy mincemeat, fresh fruit. The locals concentrated on the plentiful alcoholic offerings: rather than the horrible red Georgian wine, or an insipid French white vin de table on offer, the vodka was much nicer! Proceedings are enlivened by a Russian rock n’roll band that at last encourages the people to move away from the vodka and onto the dance floor!

Soon after we stroll back to the hotel passing through a small park. It is spring time, which here means above zero by day, but still well below freezing at night. The lake in the middle of the park is frozen solid, but some hardy souls have made a hole in the ice with some steps leading into the water, so as to “enjoy” an invigorating swim! Supposedly very tonic for the circulation. Methinks a gin and tonic works better…

Moscow arrival

I must confess I am not an early riser. Particularly not at 4:45 on a Sunday morning. But rise I must, as I have a 7:30 flight out from Venice – and after the initial sleepiness, I move with a certain spring in the step as my destination of today is Moscow, Russia – a city and a country I have never visited. Even the jaded international traveller has a frisson of excitement at the prospect of an unknown destination!

The early flight to Moscow goes via Vienna with Austrian, undoubtedly a softer approach than the direct Aeroflot flight, and the timing is more convenient… The view out of the window on approach to Moscow is of snowy forests with large white plains. As we descend, I notice that the plains are in fact frozen lakes and rivers, with large boats solidly iced in. March in Russia is evidently still a cold month!

Arrival in Sheremeteyevo airport. What do I expect? A drab concrete Soviet era building and surly officials poking through my bags. What do I get? A drab concrete Soviet era building, lots of glaring fuorescent lights, but the immigration is quick, the suitcases are waiting for me at the concourse, and the customs official barely glance at me before waving me through! Our hired driver is waiting for me outside, and soon we are off to the city. Faster in-and-out than any other major airport I have visited!

We spend much of remaining afternoon at the fair where we are exhibiting, conveniently right next to the hotel. The cyrillic signage leaves me baffled, and at first we cannot located the fair organisers’ office, but some waving of papers gets the message through and we manage to get the necessary badges. I am glad we will have an interpreter with us the next few days!


What a great day today! Two gastronomic events, and one of them a real treat! But before play, a little work is needed: my colleague and I set off from Vigo to a small town in the outskirts. Our customer is in a somewhat grim industrial area, but then again, most industrial areas are grim! We observe Spanish time: meeting starts at eleven a.m., we negotiate successfully for a new contract, spend a lot of time discussing new products and when we finish our meeting, the pangs of hunger signal it is well past our lunchtime – it is now half past two! But this is Spain, and when we arrive at the restaurant at 3 p.m., people are just beginning to sit at the tables!

Our happy customer invites us to Esteban in Mos, a modern restaurant where steel, aluminium and large glass façades are happily integrated in an old stone building. This is an elegant place, fine linen on the tables and smartly dressed waiters. With some help from our companions, we order and soon a selection of starters arrive: a slice of empanada gallega, a delicate pastry filled with tuna and julienned peppers, a superb dish of porcini mushrooms sautéed with little cubes of jamon iberico, and yet more pulpo – octopus, but this time it is asado (grilled). As a main course, I select rape a la plancha, a wonderful grilled monkfish. The wine, Albarino Rias Baixas, is a revelation to those who think Spanish wines cannot compare to the more blasé French tipples: this is one of the finest white wines in Spain, with a young, fresh taste reminiscent of the Portuguese vinho verde, but without the acidity. Very drinkable indeed!

After such a meal, it is fortunate we have no important meetings in the afternoon! After a short rest in the hotel, we are met by a couple of friends, who offer to take us for a drive around. We travel into the hinterland of Vigo, making for the nearby border. Facing the green hills of Portugal is the town of Tuy, on a hill above the river marking the border. It is a small, compact place, but features a cathedral on top of the hill with high massive walls resembling a fortress and gothic buttresses. Unfortunately it is closed, but we spend some time walking around the squares.

It is now evening and our friends lead us to a somewhat anonymous bar-café. You know the type: full of men playing cards, smoking and drinking beer, with a television blaring away in the corner. But do not be misled, for in this unpromising setting we are about to sample one of the world’s culinary delicacies, namely angulas!

What are angulas? They are baby eel – elvers – caught in the outlets of Spanish rivers in Galicia and the Basque country. Eel mature in freshwater rivers, then migrate in their thousands across the Atlantic to spawn in the Sargasso Sea. The eel larvae make their slow way back return to the rivers of their origin maturing into elvers, and are caught by fishermen standing in the mudflats as they migrate on dark moonless nights. As the angulas are barely 2 cm long and can breathe outside water, you can imagine the difficulty in catching them, which makes them a very expensive rarity.

The bar we are in, ambitiously calling itself Restaurante El Molino, serves us the angulas a la bilbaina, Bilbao style: they are simply quickly sautéed in olive oil, garlic and a little chili pepper, and are served in a covered earthenware dish with a wooden fork. Metal forks are supposed to taint the delicate flavour of the angulas, and wood holds the slippery creatures much more easily! I lift the cover off my dish and there they are: a mound of silvery white threads, remarkably resembling short spaghetti with a tiny black eye at one end. The taste? Very delicate indeed, not fishy at all, with the olive oil and the hint of garlic completing it very well! Another bottle of the excellent Albarino puts the final touch to this gastronomic experience!

Le picnic, c’est chic!

It must be the heat of this torrid summer: the French have discovered the pleasures of the anglo-saxon picnic! Mind you, they don’t pack mere egg-and-cress sarnies in the hamper, but the distinctly more foodie sandwich pain aux raisins, chèvre frais, copeaux de fenouil et pulpe d’olive, complete with a bottle of vintage Champagne…

Read more in this article in The Economist!

Another Bosphorus dinner

More customer visits today, mainly in Istanbul itself. Our man is doing his job well and he knows loads of people, most of whom seem to regard him as a good friend. Whilst driving around, I notice how green Istanbul is: there are no great parks, but everywhere squads of council workmen are busy, planting flowers or watering small garden beds by the road side. There is certainly a big effort to prettify the city.

We stop for lunch in Galatasaray, right in the city centre. We are in a small restaurant just off Istiklal Caddesi, the main Istanbul shopping street. It’s a small, homely place, and the food is homely too: Aubergine kebab, which turns out to be like a tasty aubergine and tomato ratatouille, a side of yogurt and cucumber, a few dried figs to finish. This is a typical dish that the Turkish family eats at home – meat kebabs, shish, döner and köfte are not the norm at all!

More meetings with yet more tea in the afternoon and into the early evening. No time to brush up at the hotel before dinner: as it’s my last evening in Turkey, we’re off to a special meal tonight! We drive out towards the shores of the Bosphorus and go to Park Fora in Kurucesme, near Örtaköy where I had the Happy Hour party two days ago. Park Fora is a large seafood restaurant set on a terrace amongst landscaped gardens with a great view over the straits. This is decidedly an upscale establishment and so are the patrons.

Sea bass As the sun sets and the candles are lit, a bevy of waiters bring our dinner. Several meze to start with, including shrimps, puréed aubergine (a real staple here in Turkey!), deep fried anchovies and squid. The main course is a huge sea bass baked in salt. The waiters put on a show cracking open the salt shell, and the taste of the sea bass is equally spectacular: this particular way of cooking seals in all the juices, and the fish is exceptionally tender! A couple of baklava sweets and a good Turkish coffee rounds off this excellent meal!

As we enjoy our dinner, the conversation spaces far and wide, but one comment from my Man in Turkey grabs my attention: “You do realize that all this would be banned, if the Islamists start ruling the country?” he remarks, waving his hand at the tables around us. “They will impose shariah law, ban alcohol and cover the women up! Then I think it would be right for the army to restore order.” I stare at him dumbfounded: does this mild, progressive man really contemplate the possibility of a military coup? Modern Turkey is a country of contradictions, with the two poles in society far apart. In the well-to-do areas of Istanbul we pass on the way back to the hotel, Western consumerism is rampant, with a concentration of Ferraris, Porsches and BMW SUVs greater than in any other European city.


Today we are off to Asia! Even to jaded travellers, there is a certain frisson of excitement as you pass the huge suspension bridge over the Bosphorus and you see a sign “Welcome to Asia”! The start of a vast continent… a few hours driving and I could be in Vladivostok… But to Istanbulis this is everyday commuting, and the Asian suburbs of the city are the fastest growing in Turkey. So many live here that they have even built a new airport to serve the Asian side inhabitants.

We do the usual drive around customers and drink yet more tea! As we pass through the towns, I notice how many Turkish words have a French origin: kuaför = coiffeur, şöför = chauffeur, viadügü = viaduc. Could this have been inspired by the francophile Atatürk, who latinised the Turkish alphabet? Once you get the hang of the curious spellings, Turkish isn’t the obtuse language it seems!

K�fte Lunch at a small resort by the Marmara seaside. Our restaurant is a köftecisi – a köfte meatball restaurant called Kekik (translates as “oregano”). Köfte are wonderful things, and ideal for a light meal: I have a mixed köfte dish, featuring spicy Adana köfte, plain grilled köfte and cheese köfte (I assure you, an entirely different experience from a Cheese Whopper!!). A tomato and cucumber salad and a little portion of rice by the side. A Turkish coffee and I’m done!

More visits in the afternoon, usual mixture of large and small companies. In the evening, we move back towards the European side, crossing by the second suspension bridge over the Bosphorus. It’s getting a little late by the time we get back near the hotel, and I’m tired so we have a quick dinner at Dürümcü Baba in Yesilköy. The speciality here is dürüm, that can best be described as a Turkish fajita: tender chunks of grilled lamb wrapped up with salad in a flat bread. With a couple of slices of watermelon, this makes for a quick and tasty meal!

The Bosphorus

Great start to the day – the hotel is right by the seaside and when I fling the curtains open I have a great view out from the 24th floor towards the glittering waters of the Sea of Marmara with many ships at anchor and the Prince’s Islands beyond.

Busy morning at our distributor’s office discussing the market situation and our strategies, then we move out to visit a few customers to the west of Istanbul. The city is expanding rapidly, with a lot of migrants from the Anatolian countryside. As a result, housing development and construction sites are everywhere and high rises dot the hills. Where houses go, mosques will follow, I see many minarets taking shape.

The companies we meet are a wide mixture: from modern, professionally managed organizations in smart, functional premises, to distinctly dingier outfits in dimly-lit concrete prefab buildings. One thing in common – the Turkish industrial areas all seem to have dirt roads full of potholes! As part of the meetings, a cup of Turkish coffee (kahve) or tea (çay) in a tulip shaped glass is invariably served.

After our last afternoon meeting we head off to a cocktail party! The transport company used by our distributor is hosting a “Happy Hour” for their customers. The location could not be more spectacular: a cocktail bar in Ortaköy, right on the shore of the Bosphorus. We sit by the lapping water, sun setting over the green shores of Asia on the other side of the straits. Huge tankers and small fishing boats ply the waters linking the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, the domes of a white 19th century mosque are just in front and the minarets of Sultanahmet in the distance. With this great view, we pass a Happy Hour indeed!

Ortaköy is a trendy area of Istanbul, narrow streets with old wooden buildings and small squares lined with cafés and restaurants. It is here that we choose to dine, in a balik (fish) restaurant. We ate a few snacks at the cocktail, so we have a light meal – the usual starters, salad, aubergine, börek, and then a plate of grilled shrimps. Turkish drink: raki and water!

Istanbul dinner

Dinner time! My Man in Turkey arrives, and after a short consultation, we decide to go to Kasibeyaz in Florya, just on the other side of the airport and one of my favourite restaurants in Istanbul! This is an et lokantasi, a restaurant specialising in meat, and the kebabs here are delicious! It is a large establishment, featuring even a large playground for the children, but the number of waiters is astonishing, and service is fast.

MIT takes care of the ordering and soon the starters arrive, plentiful and varied in the Levantine tradition: puréed aubergines, yogurt, a couple of puff pastry cheese börek, some raw spiced meatballs eaten with a leaf of lettuce, and a lahmacun, a small “Turkish pizza”, with parsley and minced meat on top.

The main course is also varied: we have chosen to order a küçük porsyon – a small portion, rather in the Spanish tapa style – of several dishes. We have Adana köfte, spicy meatballs named after the southern Turkish city where spicy food is the norm, a couple of very tender lamb kebabs, roast lamb slices, and finally Adana kebab. A few glasses of excellent Efes Pilsen beer from Izmir to accompany the feast.

To finish we share a classic Turkish dessert: künefe, a nest of pastry threads with honey and soft cheese, served warm. Delicious and very filling! An altogether excellent meal!

Bretagne > Alsace

Somehow I fell in a communications black hole yesterday, so no update was posted. But having set off yesterday morning from Rennes, after much, much driving, I’m now back in Alsace. Several meetings a day and travelling do not allow any time for sightseeing, but I ended up yesterday night in Blois, in the midst of the Loire valley. Tourist country, of course, and my hotel had a coachload of American pensioners on tour. The château at Blois was the royal residence for many years, but its outward appearance is less impressive than nearby Chambord or Chenonceaux. The inside decoration is supposedly a masterpiece of the Renaissance, but naturally it was closed at time I arrived.

ch�teau de Blois

Today I spent a lot of time driving on the D-roads. As you know, all main motorways lead to Paris and there are few roads going across France. But it turns out to be no problem. I am driving in the heartland of France, in the Saulois, the Cher and the Yonne. The straight, empty roads take me through woodland with many ponds and little villages (the men here still wear flat caps and rotund women emerge from the boulangeries with baguettes in hand). In one of these villages I see a sign for Fromage de Ch̬vre fermier РI cannot resist and buy a couple of Crottin de Chavignol to take home.


I finally join the A6 motorway, and skirting past Dijon, head for a meeting in the Franche Comté and then onto my overnight stop in Mulhouse.


Mulhouse is of course a German town that has been only been French (on and off) for about 200 years or so. As in much of Alsace, the architecture is Germanic, with a cathedral similar to Freiburg’s. The locals speak a curious Franco-German dialect. The old town is pretty enough, but is sadly ringed by many ugly 1960s and 1970s concrete buildings.

Aux Caves du Vieux Couvent

For dinner tonight I select Aux Caves du Vieux Couvent in 23 rue Couvent. This is the place to go for Alsace specialities. The atmosphere is rustic, wooden beams, red checked tablecloths, tall green wine glasses and frescoes on the walls. I choose the menu terroir where every dish is accompanied by its own little glass of Alsace wine:

First off with Presskopf à la Vinaigrette, which as the name suggests, is a slice of pressed meat (don’t ask….) with vinaigrette dressing, served with a gherkin and capers. Not exactly to my taste, but one has to sacrifice oneself in the sake of culture, no? A glass of Syvaner starts the series of wines.

Next, a slice of Tarte à l’Oignon, oniony of course, but very delicately so, with a nice crunchy base. Glass of Tokay Pinot Gris – much nicer than the Italian Pinot Grigio that I find invariably acidic!

The main course is Choucroute fine au Riesling, featuring caraway seed sausage, Frankfurter, Speck and a pork chop over a small hill of sauerkraut, with a couple of boiled potatoes. Did I tell you Alsace food isn’t exactly light? Ideal of course for a cold winter’s day, but it’s midsummer now!! A good glass of Riesling helps to wash it all down.

More arrives: Munster cheese with acacia honey – beware, one of the “stinkiest” cheeses in France when ripe, but this one is nice and sweet. Why the honey? I don’t know the origins, but it combines wonderfully with the cheese! And the glass of Gewürztraminer that accompanies it is delectable!

What better to conclude the meal with a refreshing fruit sorbet? Naturally enriched by a squirt of Marc de Gewürztraminer!

Excellent value at EUR 25!

Another recommendation in Mulhouse is Au Bouton d’Or in the Place de la Réunion (Rothüssplatz) – a fromagerie with a vast selection of cheeses, where I will shop tomorrow morning before heading home.