Thursday, January 15, 2009

Russian Delicacies

Back before the new millennium, I was working on a project in Russia. The idea was to assemble an offshore drilling rig that had been floated down the Volga River in pieces and then take it into the Caspian Sea. The assembly site was an out of work shipyard in Astrakhan, Russia. Astrakhan is in the delta region of the Volga River, about 60 miles before it empties in to the Caspian Sea.

There’s not much in Astrakhan and you can imagine that a construction crew of several hundred European and American men caused quite a stir, especially among the local female population. The other activity of interest, especially after working 12 hours in freezing temperatures, was eating.

Breakfast was provided to us by the hotel. It usually consisted of some sort of mystery meat sandwich (usually tongue or some other cheap meat) and yoghurt. We gave the meat to the shipyard dogs that ran wild on the property and ate the rest. Lunch was mystery meat, cabbage soup and potatoes in the shipyard cafeteria. Therefore, it was no surprise that much time was spent in deciding which restaurant to patronize after work.

We all brought food in our luggage. I carried Tabasco, which should be considered a staple when faced with Russian cuisine. I also packed in chili mix. One day a week, I would send my driver out for ground meat and vegetables and cook up a batch of chili for the engineering staff. They were mostly Finns, and they have an affinity for spicy food, although you would never guess that from their native cuisine.

There was also a crew of Italian instrument fitters that brought their own coffee and espresso pot. As my office trailer had the only hot plate available, I was treated to a fresh cup of espresso every morning. The Italians would also scour the city for groceries and wine and every Friday they would take over part of the hotel kitchen and cook up a pasta feast. Many of us ignored the hotel dining room until they dished out the pasta.
Caviar was cheap there. You could buy a 1 kg tin (that's 2 lbs) of caviar for about $30. We used to buy a tin and then scoop out the caviar with spoons.

But my coup was finding crawfish. I had packed a big jar of Zatarain’s Crab Boil and I was looking forward to a good Cajun crawfish feast. I sent my driver out to buy some. I then scrounged up a big pot and had the welders rig up a cutting torch as a burner. Unfortunately, when my driver returned, the crawfish, duly processed and certified by the government of Russia, had been frozen solid. My visions of a crawfish boil turned into the mush I knew they would become if I tried to boil them.

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