While in Vladivostok, Michele cooks a large quantity of beef bourguignon for friends.

While in Vladivostok, Michele cooks a large quantity of beef bourguignon for friends.

by Michele Haines

Michele Haines, a native of Paris, France, is the founder and executive chef of the Spring Mill Café, a French BYOB in Conshohocken for the past 34 years. She is also a world traveler and former teacher of foreign languages.

I love Russia. I love the Russian people. I go every year and try to recapture the full knowledge I had of the language in the ‘70s when I was an interpreter for Valentina Teretchkova’s and for the pianist Stanislav Richter at La Grange de Meslay Festival, which he created. This year I took the Trans-Siberian railroad across the country from Irkoutz to Vladivostok.

I am welcomed in Moscow by a sweet lady named Natasha, whom I will be staying with. When we enter her kitchen for a snack, there is a set up on the table for me with a flower and a “Reserved” sign! How sweet! I live in a leafy neighborhood with a beautiful park called Hermitage Cad. I sat at the garden restaurant to eat, and a few minutes later I made a new friend. She sat next to me and we started talking and I learned she is of Armenian descent. We met again the next day in the rain in Gorky Park. As the rain was falling on me, the sun began to shine through the dark clouds. Two rainbows appeared, and then a third! I had never experienced this before; it was magical!

I work for Slow Food, an international organization promoting healthy habits of eating, farm-to-table, respecting the world we live in, saving endangered species (plants and animals alike) and linking countries in these efforts. Slow Food has started chapters in St. Petersburg, Moscow and Suzdal.

A big promoter of farm-to-table and local products in Moscow is Lavka Lavka, founded by Boris Akimov and Alexander Michailov in 2010. They started small, buying vegetables in markets and delivering them to their friends in their car and became popular, so they created a website and continued to grow. They have now 80 farmers participating with 150 centers delivering to four shops and one restaurant. At their restaurant I had the marvelous omul fish poached with lemon and parsley. It was so light and tasty and served divine with small potatoes. They gave me a bottle of Russian champagne brut from Krasnodar. I wanted a glass. They did not have it by the glass so they gave me a whole bottle on the house! How generous and kind!

The town of Irkoutz is beautiful with old wooden houses, tree lined streets and Stalin buildings well kept and painted pink. There are a few parks with a great walk along the river, although the weather was inclement with cold wind and rain. I found an Ecco Smart with fresh fruits and vegetables, cheese and eggs from the farm. I even found a farmer who makes fresh goat cheese! So everyday I went back to my favorite store.

I stayed in the house of a lady named Galina. She had many guests in her house, mostly from France and Germany. I said I would love to make brioches for her and her guests. I went out to buy the ingredients (I already had my molds in my suitcase!) and also purchased champagne and flowers. A very nice young French woman named Melanie came with me and offered to cook spaghetti with meatballs and homemade tomato sauce. She had brought foie gras from France! So I bought some good bread; she cooked the spaghetti, and we had a feast! While we dined, the brioche dough was rising and was ready to be served for the next day’s breakfast.

For breakfast a friend of Galina’s joined us. He lives in Madagascar and trades precious stones. He gave me a nephrite stone, beautiful with its pale green hue. We spoke in French and Russian about the problems of the world.

I met a superb woman named Elena who went to kindergarten (40 years ago) with one of my Russian friends from Philadelphia! I joined her and her family on a trip to Lake Baikal in the pouring rain. We took a long walk following a trail where Elena identified plants and trees for me. She is fabulous! The lake has crystal clear water and is surrounded by rocky hills and is shaped like a banana. We took a guided tour, and the guide told us it’s the world deepest lake at around 1500 yards and contains more water than all of the Great American Lakes combined!

Michele poses with a policeman in a town called Skovorodino who helped her when she missed a train.

Michele poses with a policeman in a town called Skovorodino who helped her when she missed a train.

One of the famous species in the lake is the salmon-like fish called omul. It is so good! While there we ate it smoked. We stopped at a picnic-like café. My friends and I brought champagne, and we drank good Russian champagne with our smoked omul.

I wanted to thank Elena for her amazing kindness to me, so I suggested to her that I cook a Moroccan meal in her house. I prepared a beef tajine with the whole family helping — the father, daughter and mother. We drank champagne; it was a great evening working and eating and drinking together. That is my philosophy around the world.

I met Naran, a lovely lady who helped to make me an appointment with a female Shaman. Naran’s husband, Philip, was my guide for the trip, and the next day we met at 9:30 a.m. to drive to the Shaman Center. I was introduced to the Shaman and a lady who has worked with her for many years. They are both named Vera. I learned that to become a Shaman you feel a calling to search for your ancestors for guidance, reason and stability. My Shaman, Vera, said she was a simple Shaman Level 5, meaning she is a healer. She wears the silver plated shield, which gives one the right to practice.

I boarded the train at 4 a.m., and my hostess helped with my heavy luggage. (I carry brioches molds, a crepes suzette pan, an espresso coffee pot, five pounds of Lavazza decaf espresso, truffles, etc.) I woke up at 9 o’clock local time (five hours ahead of Moscow), made myself an infusion of lemon ginger tea and ate my banana and an apple.

A pregnant woman is gazing endlessly at the landscape as it changes from steppes to hills of pine trees and birches with flamboyant colors. Fall is coming. We pass villages with blue, yellow and purple roofs and richly restored churches with glistening cupolas. You hear the staccato noise of the wheels on the tracks. It is a gorgeous day. The lady who helped me last night joins me. She is a naturalist and works for the Dauskya Reserve near Chita. She just came back from a conference in Ulan Bator for cooperation between Mongolia and Russia in protecting the environment.

— To be continued 

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