KNYAZHEVO, Russia – The homemade hooch was 110 proof. And the grilled pork with green garlic and Russian-made halloumi were grilled to perfection on an open fire.
In a rural hamlet – amid groves of Russian birch and pine – foodies and local farmers gathered at a recent festival to toast what they consider one of their greatest triumphs in recent years: the revival of traditional Russian cuisine.
Forget the gray "mystery meat" and blobs of mayonnaise and canned peas posing as salads that became synonymous with the drab Soviet era. Enter lilac jam, stinging nettle pesto, horseradish-pickled tomatoes and braised ox with morel mushroom sauce.
"It's not a pizza. It's not a burger, but something which our parents and grandparents ate," said Boris Akimov, 41, a food entrepreneur and champion of Russia's growing farm-to-table movement.
It takes its cues from more than a century ago, trying to tap into the traditional tastes before the Russian Revolution and the concept of food manufactured for the masses. There is also a pinch of look-local nationalism in response to international sanctions.
"Russian cuisine is becoming important for the Russian people," said Akimov. "Because, for a long time, maybe a century, they forgot about it."
A gastronomical oasis
A year ago, Akimov and his wife, chef Olga Strizhibikova, opened a tiny locavore restaurant, a gastronomical oasis encased in birch wood about 90 miles northeast of Moscow in Knyazhevo, near the medieval town of Pereslavl-Zalessky.
They hope to reinvigorate the sense of community they say was wiped out during seven decades of repressive, anti-individual Soviet rule.
Earlier this month, their four-table restaurant became the focal point in a food festival where makers of cheese, cloudberry cakes, honey-sweetened gingerbread and samogon, Russia's beloved moonshine, gathered to eat, trade gossip and sell their goods before dipping into the nearby pond beneath a salmon-pink sunset.
All the food served in the restaurant, called simply Food and Farm, is fresh and seasonal, grown nearby, in fields that until 30 years ago were tilled by workers serving the Soviet state.
It is the same farm that supplies Akimov's central Moscow restaurant, LavkaLavka, one of a growing number of places where visiting foreigners have been pleasantly surprised by stylishly presented, delectable Russian food.
Pigs, geese and turkeys all occupy large sheds beside dairy cows. Mounds of fresh, one-day brynza cheese hang in patterned scarves-turned-cheesecloths.
Teeming with trendy eateries
The culinary scene in Moscow has rapidly transformed in recent years, and the once-overpriced and unpalatable capital now teems with trendy eateries offering fresh scallops from Russia's Pacific Coast and pumpkin-stuffed chudu, a flatbread staple eaten in the North Caucasus.
Russian dishes are still a long way from gaining an international following like Vietnamese pho or Thailand's tom yum soup. Akimov suggested that shchi, a traditional soup made with fermented cabbage, meat broth and vegetables, could fit a niche. Its quintessential sour-salty taste is original and very Russian.
Local gourmands say the craze really took off when President Vladimir Putin brought in countersanctions aimed at Western food imports, put into effect five years ago after the United States and Europe imposed their first round of sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea from Ukraine.
"The Soviet Union was not tasty. But Russian food is," said Strizhibikova, 41. At home she cooks on a wood-fired Russian stove that almost touches the ceiling, traditionally used throughout Russian homes for cooking and warmth before Soviet tower blocks and centralized heating dominated the landscape.
One of her favorite recipes involves leaving a pot of milk, sour cream, stewed berries and bee pollen overnight, until a creamy brown crust forms on top.
"Who needs creme brulee when you have a Russian stove?" she asked.
Learning to adapt
Russians were initially bruised by the countersanctions, when many of their European favorites - especially Spanish jamon, Italian mozzarella and stracciatella, and Cypriot halloumi - vanished overnight from supermarkets.
But the country quickly adapted, and farms across the country stepped up to make their own versions, giving birth to a vibrant cheese industry.
Russian cheese even became somewhat of a running joke during the tenure of former U.S. chargé d'affaires John Tefft, who frequently tasted it and made comparisons to cheese from his home state of Wisconsin.
"Now we make foods using Italian technology, but with a Russian facelift," said Natalia Chagina, who two years ago began organizing food festivals in the Yaroslavl region northeast of Moscow.
Putin maintains that sanctions, while they continue to squeeze Russia's economy, have also helped Russia. The country's agriculture is enjoying a boom, he repeated on June 20 in his annual call-in show.
Russian hankering for salty, rubbery halloumi and herb-encrusted Belper Knolle cheeses is what led Anna Rybnikova to quit her frenetic Moscow lifestyle and move to the countryside to become a full-time cheesemaker four years ago.
Her 18 cows produce 24 types of cheese near Knyazhevo, which she sells to Moscow markets.
"People have started to value natural products," Rybnikova said. "There came a point when they disappeared from the city and became impossible to buy. People missed them."
'This is our magic drink'
The same can be said for the super-potent samogon – distilled from a solution of sugar, water, yeast and traditional flavors – which is catching up with vodka to become a favorite tipple, regaining its pre-revolutionary status when it was vastly popular among peasants and rural communities.
A decade ago, Moscow sophisticates wouldn't be caught dead trying to order samogon in a bar. Now the home-brewed spirit is making a massive comeback.
"Any self-respecting person across the whole country knows the secret process of how to make this drink," said Dmitry Durov, pouring out his latest concoctions for people to try.
Based on centuries-old recipes, he has made three types of samogon, all at 110-proof strength: orange peel, ginger and honey, and birch-tree fungus, or chaga.
"This is our magic drink," he said. "We do it for our soul."