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Day of The Fishermen/День рыбака: It’s a Guy Thing

By July 11, 2010May 25th, 2017Uncategorized

Today is Fishermen’s Day in Russia!

Fishing and Fishermen in Russia

Today we are feting not just those who go out to their local watering hole with a rod or a reel for a quiet afternoon’s nap, but all those who trawl Russia’s 12 seas, 2 million rivers and 3 oceans to haul in catches of over 3 million tons of fish annually, making Russia one of the world’s top ten producers of fish.

If you want to know more about the Peculiarities of Russian National Fishing, do check out the film by the same name and its even funnier prequel about the Peculiarities of Russian National Hunting.

Fishing and fish remind me of an unfortunate evening last summer when I felt that I was truly stuck in a bizarre time warp.  American friends of a cousin were over in Moscow for a large medical conference.  They roped me into a dinner at some out-of-the-way restaurant, called, ominously (and I suspect not ironically) “The Collective Farm” organized by some of their fellow delegates: a 50-something surgeon called Rostislav Dmitrievich, and his wife Tatiana Ivanovna, who were stiff, formal and old-fashioned.

Memories of Fish Dinners Past

I was late, having come on from a meeting with my editor, and a good thing too, since I missed the first course: a lavish spread of traditional Russian zakuska: pickled mushrooms, pickled fish, pickled cucumbers, pickled garlic, and pickled diners, if their flushed cheeks and the half empty vodka bottle were anything to go by.  The zakuska also featured the mandatory stale slices of brown bread, curling slightly at the ends, and a warm viscous homemade cranberry juice, which tastes like cough syrup, called “kliukva” and sulphurous mineral water from the Caucuses which tastes like rotten eggs.

Fishing is boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting.

~Dave Barry

It was like an express train back to the late 1980s: during my misspent youth as a tour guide, I’d had that same meal from Tallinn to Tomsk a thousand times.  It came as no surprise to me that the next course was mushroom julienne: a glutinous concoction of sour cream, mushrooms, salt, and cheese, which I had no doubt was more cholesterol than my cousin’s friends had consumed in the last month.  Then we moved on to blini and (red) caviar, which everyone pretended was a massive treat. Then, tough, inedible beef (possibly the only red meat the doctors had consumed in this century) finishing up with melting ice cream.

Smoked Salmon Makes it All Worth It

“What has been the most…the most amazing thing about living in Russia for 17 years,” asked the lady doctor in a desperate attempt to force conversation during one of the numerous deeply awkward lulls.

“Affordable smoked salmon,” I answered promptly, which made everyone laugh for some reason.
I wasn’t completely kidding when I said that affordable smoked salmon is one of the highlights of living in Moscow…it is fantastic, although you buy it in chunks, rather than fillets, unless you go to the market yourself and are firm with the salespeople about how you would like it sliced (which if you are like me is thinly).   They don’t tend to want to hear it from a girl, since fish is another one of those things, like shashlik, that is a predominately guy thing.

Like the dried fish Borya from Zapolyarniy was kind enough to bring with him.  Guys, for example, have a charming tradition of buying live crawfish (pictured below) boiling up a large pot of water and…well…I’m sure you can imagine the rest.   Another fishy male bonding ritual is simply called “shrimp.”  For “shrimp,” conditions are ideal if there is a major sporting event on television and all the women in the house have been banished elsewhere.   Donning blue and white striped naval undershirts, the men spread newspaper over a coffee table in front of the television, boil shrimp in their shells, then spend the evening peeling, eating, and spitting out the hulls with copious amounts of beer.  No cocktail sauce or anything.  My freezer in Moscow is full of bags of these unshelled shrimp.

Then, there is caviar (which they prefer you don’t photograph:) HRH claims he was force fed black caviar as a child on the basis of its high protein count.   When I first lived in Russia, we used to get a lot of from HRH’s colleagues in Astrakhan (and the less said about HRH’s colleagues from Astrakhan the better): like a whole kilo, which we would open and spoon straight from the tin, although I occasionally made an effort to do the thing properly: toast, some chopped hard-boiled egg, a little onion to bring out the flavor, and a dash of lemon juice, which is not the way the Russians do it.  They serve caviar with sour cream and blini, which if you ask me (and no one ever ever ever does) is like taking a perfect vine-ripened tomato and dumping half a bottle of Stop & Shop French Dressing on it.

A metaphor that works for many things here come to think of it…



  • Mark says:

    I told my wife, before she was finally allowed to move here (we married in Russia in 2002, and it took until December 2005) and during one of the visits I had to make to Russia if I wanted to see her, that I loved fried fish. She obligingly bought some fresh fish at a local market that made me hold my breath to keep from passing out, and fried them up when we got home. They were minus heads (and innards, of course), but otherwise whole, bones and all. I guess I should have been more specific, and asked for fillets, although now that I think about it, I didn’t see any at the market.
    Anyway, everyone else crunched them up enthusiastically, while I picked at mine and tried to extract some meat from the bones. I felt a bit prissy, although we used to eat brook trout with the bones in when I was a kid. But I’d never seen anything like it since.
    In that case as in others, I just put it down to cultural difference and got on with it the best I could. For the most part, I genuinely enjoy Russian food and love being in Russia, although I understand it might wear on you a bit if you live there, how you might pine for a more western meal.
    Russians feel the same when out of their element. When my wife and stepson finally moved here, I couldn’t wait to introduce them to the western diet and hoped, expected, they’d swoon over how good we had it. When my wife commented that the milk tasted funny, and you couldn’t get proper cottage cheese, that ours was all runny, I was deeply offended. There were a few other minor grievances – no good herring the way they make it in Russia, you couldn’t buy that scalded-milk drink, I forget what it’s called, that sort of thing, but each was like a wound to me because I never imagined her reaction would be other than stunned ecstacy.
    I imagine Russians feel the same in that respect as well, when it’s evident a visitor doesn’t care at all for a delicacy that is a national treasure. Hey, what’s the matter with her/him? Still other cultures eat stuff we wouldn’t let near our faces, with evident relish. It’s just a matter of preference, and while I was in Russia I ate much healthier than I would have done here, with our preponderance of fast food.

  • Just wanted to let you know how thoroughly I’ve been enjoying your blog. I stumbled upon your Dacha post via google this afternoon and haven’t been able to close my laptop since! So… thank you, thank you for several hours of (hilarious) entertainment.

  • Mark,
    I so agree about eating healthier here then in the USA: since you have to make everything from scratch, it does end up being much better for you. Your wife is absolutely correct about the cottage cheese, by the way, which I only eat here in Russia. But there you are: it is out differences that makes us interesting! Love your blog, by the way, and the way you take down certain other authorities on politics…needs to be done every now and then! I’ll continue to read with interest!

  • Chris:
    Thank you so much for your kind note! I am delighted you had a good romp through Dividing My Time and that it made you laugh! Keep coming back for more, won’t you?

  • Mark says:

    Thanks, Jennifer; you’re very kind. I don’t mean to run down the U.S., which has done a great deal of good in the world and has mostly been a country to look up to. However, my nemesis constantly runs down Russia while holding up America as an example of the perfection Russians could know, if only they were good enough. I just can’t stand it. Russia’s not perfect, but it’s nowhere near as bad as she makes out with her wild exaggeration and hyperbole.
    We were able to find acceptably dry cottage cheese here after a bit of searching, and it worked well in cirniki. For those occasions when it absolutely must be Russian, there’s a Russian store in Vancouver that carries a pretty good selection. I know how she feels, though; I can make a great Hollandaise from scratch, but real fresh-squeezed lemon is too acidic. I’ve become accustomed to making it using reconstituted lemon juice from those little squeezy yellow plastic lemons. I couldn’t find them anywhere in Vladivostok. Making fajitas in Vladivostok was hopeless. I’m sure you can get everything in Moscow, and quite a bit more might have been available in Vladivostok if I’d known where to look; I did see a few decent supermarkets.
    I enjoy your blog very much; you have a great sense of humour and a very readable style. I plan to stop by regularly.

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