• Written By Richard Alsop

Caviar Conundrum

Stepping outside the aeroplane and feeling the sub-zero temperatures lick my face I could only think of one thing, get into our taxi and make way to our apartment pronto. It was early December so the winter had settled in for the next few months and I could tell it had no intentions of budging anytime soon.

As promised by our apartment contact our driver was waiting at the arrivals exit holding up a A4 card with our name on spelt wrong, or was it… After all, we were in a country that worked from a completely different alphabet, so who am I too question the spelling?

Our driver was a quiet and reserved man who didn’t understand much English, he had a badly broken nose and smelt of strong tobacco and I also got the feeling he looked older than his years.

We entered the vehicle and at the start it was a little awkward but the ice was quickly broken by us singing along to a song playing on the radio which he acknowledged and joined in. I can’t remember the song but I’m sure it will have been of the classic banger variety.

The sing along interaction came to a swift end though as the next song on the playlist was sang in Ukraine or maybe Russian. It did feel less tense in the vehicle now though and we did feel more at ease now. Vocalised first impressions had now manifested into to us all talking about the UK in one word sentences like Manchester United, David Beckham, Prince Charles and Princess Diana which were all acknowledged by us in return with one word noises like ohhhh, ahhh, yesss.

Becoming solid acquaintances we then tried to explain where we were from, pinpointing the nearest major city, which ended up being London which is one hundred and sixty-seven miles from our home town but I suppose that is near enough in the grand scheme of things and it was all in act of the drivers politeness. At least he then didn’t go on to ask if we knew his mate Dave from Clapham.

In all honesty though the driver may as well have said France in relation to the geographical positioning but being English we said yes and nodded with an over enthusiastic smile when really I wanted to just say, “thats absolutely nowhere near mate!”. Regardless, at least the conversation helped to cement our bond and put us all at ease for the remainder of the journey.

The time was around eight thirty pm Kiev time so it was already dark, you could tell when we had entered Kiev City as the semi rural scenery had now turned into roads that were lined with ex-communist bloc buildings. The buildings were typically greyish in colour, squat in stature and all lined up symmetrically alongside the north and south banks of the Dniper River.

The bottom row of the apartments boasted commercial shops and what looked like small casinos, quite poignant that the now capitalist offerings from the western world were the foundations to the rest of the greyish concrete looking buildings. Khrushchev would be turning in his grave to see the modern day twist on his concept of “True Communism”.

It was very dark in this part of the city with the only visible light being the bright bulbs that were switched on in the apartments where you could see people through the windows watching TV and cooking meals. There wasn’t much character to the buildings but peering through the windows while we passed through you could see the many types of different characters busying away within them.

Later on in the visit I would find out that the housing were purpose built to help resolve the housing crisis during the glory days (depending on whom you asked) of Russian Communist rule before Ukraine became independent in 1991.

You can always tell when you are starting to get closer to the tourist parts of a large city as things seem to become brighter with much more street lighting, illuminating beautiful architecture and extravagant monuments that could be missed within a blink of an eye.

The first of many monuments we passed en route was the Iron Maiden which was very impressive at first glance. The monument is a huge stainless steel statue which towers over the surrounding areas. A reminder to many of the countries previous ties with the Soviet Union. As you can imagine its quite a controversial monument with many people from Kiev believing it should be pulled down. Regardless of the statues connotation and worth to the locals it was quite nice for us to see, as by this point we were growing more and more tired from the days travel so seeing the statue really did help with the journey. In fairness, It was quite uplifting after a very dull, copy and paste journey for the last twenty minutes.

To be reflective on the journey it really did exemplify the duality of the old regime that once ruled these lands. The statue could be seen as a symbol of division for the people of Kiev but to simple tourists like us it was a great photo opportunity… click!

Not realising before booking our culinary adventure, Ukraine has a closed currency meaning we couldn’t exchange cash at our local exchange. So at this point in our trip we didn’t have any money what so ever in our pockets. Daunting to some people, exciting to others.

The same contact who arranged the driver told us we would be taken somewhere to exchange some cash before being dropped at our apartment.

Unexpectedly, the driver pulled up next to a casino on a busy city centre street. The driver switched off the engine and simply said, “exchange” while pointing his finger at the casino entrance. I left the car entered the casino and simply exchanged my money with a woman sat behind a glass screen who didn’t once make eye contact or smile at me during the whole exchange. Who cares about small talk when you just want to quickly go in and out without a fuss this lady certainly didn’t. I was immediately thinking that I could to get used to this.

I must admit though, looking back the whole experience did feel quite shady to say the least.

I left the casino, quickly jumped back into the taxi and we then continued our journey onwards with our pockets full of Ukrainian cash.

Randomly we then pulled up right next to Dynamo Kiev football stadium. The driver jumped out of the car in what seemed to be quite a panic, prompting us to follow. He then began to jog down with us in tow and what can only be described as suitcaseless as they remained in the abandoned car. We followed him blindly like the pied piper to a bottom floor apartment on a random street in the middle of Kiev with the football crowds now cheering in the background.

An unorthodox approach to tourism a voice in my head says, but we weren’t exactly in sunny Spain chillaxing next to a warm beech, so we have to give a little room for the rules of convention to be slightly blurred. We were on adventure in minus ten Kiev who had a revolution as recent as 2014. Of course it wasn’t going to be conventional.

The driver jogged us all the way to a poorly lit small apartment where a woman immediately explained to us that the driver was jogging because he didn’t want us to get caught up in the football crowds leaving the stadium. Now everything made sense, I was starting to think something quite sinister was unfolding but I was bigger and fitter than the driver and off course I wasn’t daft enough to leave the passports or cash in the vehicle so we did feel safe, well I did but you might have to ask my partner separately.

We were then checked into our apartment by the lady. We passed her some cash, collected our keys and the driver then jogged us back to the car where we were reunited with our suitcases.

The driver then drove us the last leg of the journey to our apartment while me and my partner struggled to hold back our laughter at the utter randomness of the situation which had just unfolded.

We pulled up outside a medium height apartment block, it was typical city centre housing and in sync with what we had seen during our ride from the airport.

We unloaded our bags walked around ten metres or so too face a huge metal door, steal I think and around four inch thick with an extremely secure lock. After a little faffing we managed to unlock it, swing the fortress door and enter the building.

Now inside with luggage in hand all three of us squeezed into the tiniest lift imaginable. There wasn’t much room for stale breath lets put it that way.

The lift clanked and banged and seemed to take an eternity to reach the level we wanted.

Lifts always feels like they take an eternity when you are holding your breath slightly just in case it doesn’t smell to great. British lift etiquette at its very best!

Eventually the lift came to its final destination and we piled out. This meant I could now take in a deep breathe after the light breathing technique I had adopted during the vertical operation.

Eventually we were three floors up, inserting a key and unlocking the door to our very small but fantastic apartment. It was full of colour, lots of sunshine yellow and the room was bursting to the brim with a room temperature that almost put me to sleep there and then.

The apartment was great, it had an indoor jacuzzi which took up about twenty percent of the overall apartment space. A more than adequate kitchen and a very cosy living room/dining room with balcony. The perfect set up for us to enjoy the next four days of our foodie adventure.

We said our thankyous and farewells to the driver and tipped him accordingly. We also booked in our journey back to the airport there and then and he was more than happy to oblige.

Driver gone, heat melting our faces, bags unpacked we started to plan our evening.

As always with these types of city breaks my instincts are to visit the nearest local shop and stock up with essentials as soon as humanly possible. What I didn’t realise is amongst the bread, milk, cheese and meats the item that really jumped out to me would be the premium Ukrainian vodka.

Being from England we do enjoy a bargain, making a blanket assumption of the whole economy of the country we are visiting purely on the cost of the local alcohol.

Long story short, the 750ml bottle of premium Ukrainian vodka clocked in at approximately £3.50… need I say anymore?

Returning from the shop with treats a plenty through the massive metal door, I then entered the rickety lift. This time was different as I could now breath at ease which put a spring into my step.

I hopped off at the third floor as shown earlier by the pied piper and then back into our really warm apartment.

I unloaded the paper bags full off first night goodies and then explained to my partner how cheap everything were in the shop especially the alcohol.

It won’t come as a surprise that after eating our light snacks the night concluded with some vodka tasting sessions. Inhale then neck the shot and slowly breath out, or is it the only way round… I can never seem to remember. The vodka was great, ice cold and no after burn, maybe it was our masterful technique. Suppose the bottle boasting premium in big letters on the front of the bottle isn’t for nothing. No surprise we slept really well that night!

Waking the next morning without hangover I should add, I searched the internet to get directions to a well known market called Besarabsky Market. Being foodies It was one of the main reasons amongst others why we chose to visit Kiev. Like the day prior It was once again a very cold morning. We left the apartment and seen Kiev for the first time in daylight which offered a totally different feel as it always does when arriving in cities during the darkness of night. The place was buzzing, lots of people going to work, across the road was a local public playground being upgraded as well as a vibrant coffee shop that was less than thirty metres away from our apartment door which was impossible to see upon arrival. There were clothing shops and a very nice smelling bakery that was full of students tapping away on their laptops while drinking good strong coffee. All which lined the street where our apartment was situated. Ideal eye candy while we strolled towards the famous Kiev based market.

Without realising our journey was a mere kilometre to the market which was a nice bonus in this weather yet still far enough to get the body up to a nice temperature.

Walking through the market doors which were positioned on the outside of a large circular building we could observe static shops on the peripheral and then temporary markets on the inside. Not too dissimilar to the indoor markets we see in our own towns and cities. However, this was a big market, comparative to a large city like London or Glasgow.

Entering the building we could see it was very quiet with footfall that morning. Around twenty people in total which did make us feel a little intimidated especially with the other eighteen looking like they were locals. I have enough experience from visiting similar markets beforehand to know that as soon as the competing traders discovered our nationality we would get pestered and followed relentlessly which can be quite unnerving. I wasn’t wrong! We lasted about fifteen minutes before we both thought that jumping ship was a good idea.

Dont get me wrong I love the market tradition of traders being loud and proud putting items into your hands that you don’t even want but when the battle field is at least busy you get an equal chance to duck and dive amongst the other punters, simultaneously gaining mini breaks by doing so. We had no such luxury and these traders in particular were extra pushy.

We were there long enough though to get a feel for the place and leave with some heavily discounted Beluga caviar, paying approximately £9.00 which stating the obvious is a lot cheaper than we can buy it for in the UK.

The lady who sold us the caviar asked us very randomly if we were going home on the aeroplane which we replied “yes”. Not understanding her thought process we watched mesmerised as the lady then began to wrap our caviar in foil, then cling film, once again foil and then to conclude another layer of cling film. Still not realising the reason behind why she did this I could only think, “bloodyhell, that’s going to take some getting into”. We left the market chuffed to bits with our bargain of the century and we couldn’t wait to take it home to the UK and share it with family and friends.

Something I should point out, please don’t be put off by the experience we had on a quiet day at this market. The fifteen minutes we did stay there still offered us a great experience into the Kiev market culture, it was very much made up of local people from the area and strangely many of the traders were selling the exact same products. Pitched directly across from each other traders had no problem with rivalling the same products. It wasn’t a place for my vegan and vegetarian friends thats for sure. So much red meat hung up glowing bright red like any fresh recent kill would. The meat was hung just above cold counters with the odd speck of blood visible on the work surface. No gloves were used to serve and the tools to cut the meat looked well used. It was like picturing a market not to far away from what you would expect in the seventies UK when there was far less red tape.

Huge sturgeon were placed on ice beds within the counters below the red meat, freshly caught and gutted weighing anything up to fifteen kilos in weight. Directly by the side of the sturgeon is where the traders would advertise their eggs, housed in Beluga caviar tins.

This was the general theme throughout the market and there was a lot more meat and fish on sale than fresh fruit and vegetables. One thing that really stood out to me was that all the traders didn’t have any type of uniform that they followed. For example a butcher in whites or a red and white striped apron. Everybody dressed as they wished and there was no gloves or serving etiquette. This market felt authentic, no class streaming of meat and fish going on here. It was full to the brim of one specific type of person, real people all there to make a living and sell their produce and it was fantastic to witness and experience.

After vacating the market we decided against going back to the apartment to get freshened up, which is what we originally planned before going out for our evening meal. It was far too cold to mess round like that. Going to and fro like you would in a hotter climate had no appeal whatsoever. With this very thought in mind we decided to eat earlier than scheduled so we could get back to the warmth of the indoor jacuzzi and drink vodka until the early hours. We were also ravenous after cramming in all the mind blowing cathedrals Kiev had to offer in just one day so food quickly became our priority.

Another reason we decided on Kiev as our choice of destination is that we wanted to visit the Khresghatyk Food Festival which is basically a street food festival with entertainment in the centre of Kiev. We were so intrigued as to what cuisines would be on offer with relation to its geographical placement. Eastern Europe in my opinion is one of the lesser popular cuisines we get on the high streets of our towns and cities in the UK and is generally criticised for being bland or mainly soups and broths so we wanted to do a bit of cuisine exploration in a part of the world we didn’t know much about in hope to do some myth busting, educate ourselves and hopefully stumble across some hidden gems.

Prepared for an arctic exploration with heavily wrapped caviar in pocket we arrived at the food festival only to find out that the event that day had been postponed due to the cold weather. We were quite disappointed at the time as the idea of standing around togged up in minus temperatures drinking vodka and eating hearty food while steam bellowed from our warm mouths as our breath entered the cold world felt quite fitting for the place where we were visiting.

So slightly disappointed we decided to act quickly and make our way to a restaurant called SpotyKach that we had read so much about prior to arriving in Kiev.

We had planned to go to this restaurant the next evening but it made sense to think quick and jiggle things around before mild hypothermia kicked in.

In hindsight I am sure the culinary experience we were seeking at the food festival would have quickly become distress as the minus numbers clocked up, the light disappearing and the darkness moving in. So maybe it was a blessing disguised in the form of postponement.

After googling the address of the restaurant we were ecstatic to learn that it was situated less than five hundred metres away from where we stood which added a giddiness to our conversations while we marched their like soldiers in drill. It later became known as the Spotykach romp, immortalised forever over several early hour vodkas.

Caviar still in pocket we arrived at the restaurant around six pm so the light had turned to dark which added a romantic feel to our unexpected arrival.

That feeling you get in the winter when you battle the elements head on and then get that really warm feeling when you enter somewhere you know you are going to stay for several hours. A bit like getting wet and muddy during a brisk Sunday morning walk only to stumble into a country pub with a nice warm open fire that is popping and crackling with a plethora of real ales on tap. You know… that kind of feeling.

We were met in the doorway of the restaurant by a young guy who took my partners coat first and then my coat. Both coats were hung appropriately with a warm inviting smile next to the door. Our undressing didn’t stop there, hats, gloves, scarf and jumper quickly followed the coat which was met with giggles from all three of us.

Our waiter for the evening then showed us to our table for two which we both felt more than happy about where it was positioned.

The restaurant felt quite traditional even though our knowledge isn’t great on the tradition of Ukrainian eateries.

It was unexpectedly really busy for the time of day we decided to eat. My thought being that in the Ukraine people maybe eat a bit earlier than what we are more accustom to in western Europe which is probably influenced by the weather.

We sat at our table much lighter now all our extra clothes had been removed. We were both more than happy to be out of the cold and sat relaxing in what seemed like a wonderful restaurant.

The giddiness from earlier continued long into the evening.

Well and truly settled in the waiter then asked us what drinks we would like? Now I genuinely mean this but me and partner never drink vodka at home or anywhere else if I’m honest but the first thing we both clocked eyes on from the drinks menu was premium Ukrainian vodka. I think waking earlier that day without a hangover after indulging the way we did the night before helped influence our decision.

So we ordered the first round of many vodkas which from then on kept coming like a production line by just a simple nod of the head. Fantastic!

Once again we went over the whole do I breath in first, drink then exhale or the other way around. At that moment we could not think of a more appropriate time to perfect our vodka shot technique. We were like the two characters from Indiana Jones and the raiders of the lost ark. Sat across from each other necking shots then slamming them back down on the table upside down, seeing who would drop first. Not quite, although we couldn’t help ourselves from playing the scene out at least once, maybe twice before getting a strange look from the people sat on the table across from us.

I will be honest my choice from the menu may be a bit controversial to some people as I opted for Borscht, consistency quite similar to soup, reddish in colour with a lump of cream in the middle which is stirred in to thicken the dish. I have had similar dishes to this in Romania and Hungary, however, the controversial ingredient in this dish being veal.

I have never had veal before and I didn’t know what to expect and I can now confirm it was very nice in taste, succulent and tender like you would expect from such young meat.

In taste the dish was quite salty with a smooth fresh finish due to the cream and it definitely had a bit of a kick maybe chilli but I think from lots of pepper. I also think there was a touch of parsley or something of similar taste. The vegetables consisted of beetroot, onion, carrots, celery, potato and some type of bean. It sounds quite plain but it was full of taste. I asked the waiter to recommend a typical dish from the region and this is one of the dishes he suggested.

It was a lovely dish and went really well with the neat vodka shots. I don’t think my slurping noises went down very well though with our vodka slamming friends sat on the table across from us. Luckily they left not too long after so our giddiness went up to eleven by this point. Probably matched with just as many vodkas.

My partner opted for what I can only describe as Ukrainian tapas, separate pieces of crunchy bread that was topped with different meats, thinly sliced beef and salmon then topped with basic seasoning. Nothing aesthetically that pleasing with either of our dishes but it ticked every box that we wanted ticking and its food we would both definitely eat again.

We thoroughly enjoyed the food, the ambience and also the manner in which the waiter advised us on our orders and helped with translations. There wasn’t much talk between us and the waiter and it seemed he felt as though he had to keep his distance from us while dining. Im sure some people like this approach and some do not. We definitely prefer banter with our waiter to be involved at some point during our meal. Feeling it adds to the cultural experience, especially if you get a waiter that is quite happy to open up and share stories and differences between nationalities.

This isn’t a complaint at all and its a shame we didn’t get the chance to explore this etiquette in more detail. To see if its the norm in Kiev or to see if its the way that the staff from this particular restaurant conducts themselves. Who knows…

After several more vodkas we paid the bill which was extremely well priced if you take conversation rate into account.

We left our table bellies full and extremely satisfied with what can only be described as a happy sway to our walk.

We padded back up and reentered the high street looking like the Marshmallow man from Ghostbusters ready to be battered by the elements once more.

When leaving we were given a gift at the door which resembled the shape of a cornetto ice cream. Tightly wrapped newspaper that when unfolded was an advert for the restaurant in the style of a page from a newspaper and within the cornetto wrap was roughly two handfuls of sunflower seeds. A really nice touch especially if you are familiar with the long winded technique of eating sun flower seeds. The door swung open and as expected the cold air hit us like a steam train.

Lucky for us we had our vodka coat on which made us feel invincible.

We romped back to the apartment which was approximately two kilometres away. Along the way we walked though Maidan Nezalezhnosti renamed as Revolution Square after the more recent revolt that took place in Kiev. It was quite a sobering experience to imagine the people who stayed in the square for all that time enduring such temperatures. It didn’t extinguish our giddiness but it definitely sparked a more serious conversation between us which we explored in its entirety all the way back.

Arriving at the apartment still red eyed with a touch of sobering contemplation we searched the internet to plan the next days activities and culinary quest. Upon doing so I quickly had a look at several things online which included Kiev revolution and current political climate only to find a couple of articles about the illegal harvesting of caviar within the Ukraine.

Communities up and down the Dniper River that separated Ukraine from Russia was catching Beluga sturgeon as well as other species to then illegally sell at market, which then ends up in the innocent hands of people like us. The problem now is so out of control the Ukrainian authorities have turned a blind eye as it was financially not viable for the country to control. The problem is reported to be so bad that some of the lesser known sturgeon species are now under threat of extinction. In fact the caviar issue in the Ukraine annoys the Russians so much that if people are caught with illegal caviar crossing the boarders they are instantly detained.

Finally it dawns on me exactly why the woman asked if we were taking the aeroplane home and after we answered yes she then did the elaborate wrapping of the tin of caviar.

Basically we had bought illegal goods, poached and harvested sturgeon eggs of the highest quality for a fraction of the price that we would pay in the UK or Russia but then for an amount that would vastly improve the lives of the Ukrainians selling it.

What would you do? Unwrap it and then eat it with the lovely cheeses and smoked cured meats we had bought earlier that day, so at least the sturgeon didn’t die for nothing… throw it away? Leave it in the apartment fridge for the cleaner to take home? Risk packing it into your suitcase and take it home to enjoy with your family and friends and just don’t tell them the situation?

It was for sure a full on unexpected caviar conundrum that we didn’t know how to resolve.

What was the best action for us to take with our freshly purchased contraband?

Luckily we had our vodka chilling in the freezer from the evening before which set us up perfectly to chat about our options into the early hours of the morning while we sat in our shorts and t-shirts warmed by the fantastic invention of central heating… frequently dipping in and out of the jacuzzi.

Written by Richard Antonio Alsop


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