Writer: Anissa Helou
I was on a busy London street when my mobile rang. I could hardly hear my friend’s voice as she described to me what she thought was the trip of a lifetime “Where?” I asked, not recognising Kamchatka - which was rather silly as I love Kamchatka crab but then I am not very good at geography. She explained: “In Siberia!” I nearly crashed into the person in front of me. Siberia is not my idea of a travel destination, or anyone else’s for that matter. Once a place of exile and hardship, the temperatures can dip to more than minus 30 degrees Celsius. I wasn’t captivated by the idea but after returning home, a quick read about the volcanoes, thermal springs and the Valley of the Geysers soon changed my mind. I accepted the invitation.
Parts of the trip were beautiful, parts were hideous, but perhaps the worst aspect was the food: pure stodge except for two meals. Five years ago, the trend in the food industry was all about molecular cooking à la Ferran Adria at El Bulli. Some chefs, like Noma’s René Redzepi had been using foraged ingredients, but as an approach it was still in its infancy. Things have evidently changed since. Being a locavore and foraging for one’s food is all the rage now. I would like to think that if Redzepi had been with us at the roadside café we stopped at after a surreal ‘waiting for Godot’ rendez-vous with a helicopter that never arrived, he would have been as excited as we were at the sight of the wild mushrooms and baby ferns that had been picked right behind the restaurant.
And we definitely would have missed out on discovery if I hadn’t been curious enough about what everyone in the café was eating. When I asked our pretty interpreter to tell me what was on the menu, she only said kebabs and potatoes. No mention of the platefuls of weird-looking baby ferns and wild mushrooms our neighbours were eating. I insisted she should tell our toothless waitress that we wanted to have them. Fortunately, it wasn’t a problem and the mushrooms were as succulent as the best porcini while the ferns were very interesting with a hint of bitterness that was not unpleasant. The only drawback was that both had been cooked in too much oil but it didn’t matter. We were at last eating something delicious and local, which is what we should have been doing all along.
The other enjoyable meal was literally in the middle of nowhere. We had flown to an eco-lodge by a thermal spring – this time the helicopter did arrive but we almost didn’t; it was an antiquated machine that would have seen better days during the Soviet era. We landed in the middle of the most beautiful snowy landscape by a steaming lake, one of the many thermal springs for which Kamtchatka is known. The lodge, on the other hand, was not so beautiful. Nothing worked, not even the bathroom. For a toilet, we were expected to use a tiny hut about 200 metres from the lodge with simply a hole in the ground. Then when we decided to have a dip in the steaming lake, we realised there were no steps to help us get in or out. Thankfully our lodge keeper was charming and he saved the day by serving us the most exquisite wild salmon for dinner, which he had caught himself. It was very red and he had cured it – half like smoked salmon and half like gravadlax – giving it a sweet edge. He cut the fish in chunks and drizzled it with oil, also using too much. It would have been totally wonderful otherwise.
Kamtchatka crab? Not one. Perhaps it’s all exported.