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!


Leisurely start this morning – the Spaniards don’t like visitors to their offices much before 10 am! My appointments today are in the valley (el Vallès) behind the Tibidabo mountain dominating Barcelona. Most of Barcelona’s industries seem to be clustered here, and new Poligonos Industriales are sprouting like mushrooms! Getting there involves negotiating the car through the jams of the Ronda de Dalt – the local equivalent of Paris’s Périphérique or London’s M25, on a smaller scale.

I have two meetings, then back to the airport for the flight across Spain to Vigo on the Atlantic coast. Much of our route is overcast so no views out of the window, but the final approach to Vigo airport is spectacular: we break out of the clouds and a hilly green landscape is revealed, dotted with small farmhouses. The town is set by a steep-sided fjord with three islands just offshore protecting it from the ocean. The airport runway is visible to the right, cut into the wooded hillside. To land, the plane must make a tight 270 degree left turn to lose height quickly and stay away from the hills. Seems like an airport to avoid in bad weather! There is no taxiway, the plane has to make a U-turn and double back along the runway to reach the terminal!

I check into the excellent hotel Palacio de Vigo and have to wait a while for my colleague to turn up late from a different flight, so we opt for a quick meal in a small restaurant nearby the hotel: a plate of tasty _jamon íberico_, a _pulpo a la gallega_ as I had yesterday, accompanied by slices of bread with crushed tomatoes and olive oil, ubiquitous in Spanish restaurants.

Barcelona 2004

Snow is fine whilst you are on the slopes, and we had great fun yesterday on a 5 km piste on the Altipiano di Asiago. But not so fine when commuting to the office. So I’ll be off to Spain this week, first to Barcelona and then to Vigo in Galicia. Should be warmer than here. It’s a fine start today at Venice airport – plane delayed “at least an hour if not two” due to adverse weather conditions…

Finally arrived in Barcelona one hour late, just after 7pm. As soon as I step out of the airport, the temperature difference from Italy was noticeable – off with the overcoat, gloves and hat! This is the Med – a balmy 13C and the almond trees are bursting in bloom!

Long wait for baggage, then sorted out hire car and lost my way to the hotel amongst the various expressways of Barcelona, so I finally made it to my room at 9 pm. Weaker men would have gone straight to bed, but this is Spain, one eats late and your Gastronaut is undeterred! Quick brush-up, then I head for the Paseo de Gracia, the wide, elegant boulevard lined with the fantastic Gaudì buildings. Just on this street near the Plaza de Catalunya end is *Tapa Tapa*, would you believe it, a tapas bar! I have written about this previously, it is a large commercial establishment, but convenient and with a friendly atmosphere. I sit at the long counter at the bar and order three classics from a wide selection of tapas: _chipirones fritos_ (fried squid), _patatas bravas_ (roast potatoes with mayo and mustard) and _pulpo a la gallega_ (Galician octopus, finely sliced, with olive oil and ground chili). A great snack, accompanied by a cool Löwenbräu Märzenbier (yes, not authentically Spanish as a Cerveza Damm, but one has to take what is available!) A brisk walk back to the hotel in the cool evening air gets me ready for bed.


I’m spending the Christmas holidays in Albenga, on the Italian Riviera on the way to France. Plenty of family occasions, that are naturally a good opportunity for gastronomic discussions. A good example yesterday night when we spent an hour debating the the finer points of the making of the fish soup we will enjoy on New Year’s eve!

Awaiting the foodie treats to ring in 2004, we went to sample a local speciality, namely _farinata_. This is a “poor man’s” dish, eaten all along the Riviera and also in Tuscany. Ingredients and procedure are basic: mix chickpea flour 1:3 with water and let stand for 4-5 hours. Pour the lot in a wide baking tray smeared with olive oil, sprinkle with rosemary and pop in a hot (preferably wood fired) oven. The liquid mixture will cook rapidly and a golden brown crust will form on top of a creamy white base. It is then cut up in small chunks. Very simple and delicious served with a glass of local _Pigato_ white wine. Eat in or carry out from *Puppo*, Via Torlaro, Albenga.


Two hour drive up the coast today to Göteborg to visit the packaging show. A “cool morning” my Man in Sweden says – bloody freezing would be a more apt way to put it, as it is -5°C as we set off!! But the day is clear and the Swedish motorways are wonderfully clear of the traffic clogging up the rest of Europe.

Half way to our destination we come up to a police road block. Accident? Overspeeding? No – they are stopping every motorist and checking alcohol levels with a breathalyser! A strange time at nine in the morning, I wonder… but I find out the checks are there to catch those who have been binging the previous evening. With almost zero alcohol tolerance whilst driving in Sweden, apparently there may be still enough alcohol in your blood after a night’s sleep to be over the limit!

The show was, well, like most other packaging shows – The latest in cartons, bags and bottles and whirring machinery, all very boring to the uninitiated. A lot of the stands serving food and drink – and the punters are taking full advantage, considering that a small beer in this country can set you back 6 Euro! The Nordic countries have a beer classification regime that also determines the taxation levels: _lättöl_ (light beer – i.e. gnat’s water), _mellanöl_ (middle beer – i.e. like Heineken) and _starköl_ (strong beer – the Real Stuff – but alas, also the most heavily taxed!).

Coming out of the show, we notice another police breathalyser roadblock just at the exit of the exhibition hall carpark! Sneaky this – they are catching those who have been boozing on the stands! My colleague takes a long detour and we get out at another exit!

Back in Helsingborg in time for another dinner at the Scandic – I have my favourite dish in Scandinavia – _räksmörgås med ägg_ – a sandwich with a mound of shrimps layered with mayonnaise, dill and egg. Huge portions and a great meal together with a glass of Spendrups beer – _stark_, of course!


Arrived at Copenhagen airport and got on a train north – very conveniently. the airport train station is just in front of the arrivals hall. Getting near freezing at this time of year – Brrr!! Good that I have my hat! Stopped along the way to visit a customer, then back on the train to Helsingor. Now it´s almost six and the train is full of commuters – I note a lot of black and brown faces – Denmark is getting to be a multi-ethnic society!

The ferry at Helsingor to take me across the Sund to Helsingborg is just by the train station. The Scandinavians have a good grasp of integrated public transport systems! It´s getting yet colder by the minute, but I step out on the deck to catch the great view over Helsingor castle overlooking the sea – you know, Hamlet´s Elsinore… but I refrain from asking rhetorical questions at this point…

My Man in Sweden meets me at the ferry terminal – a quick meeting at the office then over to the local Scandic hotel where we have dinner. In Scandinavia, fish is a must and I duly order _rökt lax_ (smoked salmon on taost with horseradish cream and dill) and _rödtunga_ (butter-fried lemon sole). Great stuff – I can´t wait to try out the shrimp sandwich and _Gravadlax_ tomorrow!