Virtual tour: Savouring Russia with pancakes in a countryside summer house

MOSCOW – Outside Moscow, in a dacha or countryside summer house, Ms Anna Belousova, 30, shows virtual tourists how to make cottage-cheese pancakes from a family recipe.

In dark times, the world craves the simplicity of comfort food, so I sign up for her Cooking Russian Food: Live Virtual Cooking Class. It costs US$50 (S$69.70) for up to four people.

Also, I have experienced Russia as an epic yet intimate land thrice, most vividly on a trans-Siberian rail journey, and am hoping to explore the country differently with an Internet connection.

I invite two foodies: my sister, who has a vegetable patch in her home in Britain, and a Russophile in Singapore.

Our host styles her sunlit kitchen corner for maximum Instagram appeal. My eyes linger on a little samovar or decorative tea urn, matryoshka nesting dolls and a blue-and-white porcelain teapot in the Gzhel folk style.

She holds up the ingredients – cottage cheese, eggs, flour, sugar and butter. Helpfully, she suggests substitutes to suit our taste, such as rice flour or semolina.

Play with a choice of toppings for these breakfast pancakes or syrniki, she says. The Russian style is to use fresh fruit, jam, sour cream and condensed milk, but it can be any topping we fancy.

To reduce technical difficulties, we turn off our cameras and mute our microphones while she cooks and talks about Russia. There is a live-chat option on screen for an element of interaction.

Nimbly, she creates little narratives around food. The pancakes – round and golden medallions – were symbols of the sun god in pagan times.

Pancakes with strawberries. PHOTO: COURTESY OF ANNA BELOUSOVA

She highlights food trends in Moscow, which is booming with gastro-clusters, fancy food malls and restaurants. “You can feel the local vibe” in these places favoured by Russian celebrities, television hosts and influencers.

“Moscow’s gastronomic makeover started when the Soviet-era Danilovsky Market got a hipster rebranding a few years ago. The major idea here is the perfect combo of a local market trend combined with nice restaurants,” she elaborates in an e-mail later.

We share a sense of a planet in lockdown. While waiting for the pancakes to cook, the full-time tour guide talks about sheltering in the dacha that is 30km outside of Moscow.

“I miss my travellers,” she says, though being cocooned with her husband and toddler son in the dacha, near a lake, is ideal.

When the pancakes emerge and she describes them as “crisp on the outside and creamy inside”, we rely on the power of our imagination, as my Russophile companion, tech-sector publicist Fen Chia, 36, quips.

Her summer plan to visit Baikal in Siberia has been scuppered, but the intimate session, with like-minded people and our guide’s personal insights, is pleasurable.

This is her first time peeking into a dacha “as it’s the sort of experience you can have only if you know a native Russian friend who owns one and the occasion is right for a visit”.

The joy of virtual travel makes up for the occasionally laggy visuals on our laptops. It is a fleeting hour, but in a follow-up e-mail the same day, Anna sends the recipe and a link to the video recording, our electronic keepsake.

So I am plotting my next getaway: recreating a flavour of Russia in my kitchen.

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