The more I travel, the more I grow to appreciate being able to try new foods. Probably as you grow older (regardless of the amount of traveling experience), you learn the importance of mundane things. In my attempt to get a little taste of Europe in this complicated part of my country, I wanted to try something new like I do on every trip (even a domestic one).
Here in Kaliningrad Region you can start your gastronomic adventures right at local grocery stores. There is supposed to be nothing special in a trip to such an ordinary place. But here even in a tiny store you can get a bite of Europe which feels so close. Polish sausages, German chocolate, Lithuanian beer… It’s not that they can’t absolutely be found in the rest of Russia, but definitely not much at regular stores. What is interesting is that these products aren’t in a special section or anything but just sitting in those shelves along with the typically Russian produce. I think with all these sanctions being around for what seems like forever, we have been trained to stock up on those European goods just in case another round hits making it impossible to get any. So, on every trip to a store during our week we ended up getting a little treat: a bar of Polish chocolate, German cookies, etc. We have become more spoiled when it comes to food quality compared to when we first traveled to Europe just to be blown away by the quality of products there, but it is not just about symbolically buying something ‘foreign’. The quality is mostly still somewhat better.
When you travel to Europe (pretty much anywhere), you are quite likely to have that ‘European’ gastronomic moment seated at a cosy street cafe sipping on your lovely coffee and people-watching. I had mine watching a street in front of me and the cars moving along what could have been cobbled streets with old tramways in the region’s capital. Actually, in modern Kaliningrad they are still in use. That moment happened just a block away from the touristy part of Amalienau, a district of German villas. Before that we’d had multiple coffees overlooking the Baltic Sea, but that one felt (and tasted) the most European of all. My love for this drink started at a tiny gas station on a night trip from Paris to Cannes, so coffee and Europe will always go hand in hand for me — anywhere in the world.
Something that we have in abundance but still crave for are lovely bakeries offering a selection of pastry that can convert anyone into a fan. In Kaliningrad Region they have a chain of bakeries called Königsbäker combining the informal name of the city (König) and the German for „baker“. I guess that with these low-key establishments with such a German name the region brings us closer to Europe. You can also indulge your sweet tooth by treating yourself to some marzipan, which used to be produced in Königsberg. The quintessentially German spirit can be found at numerous authentic-looking beer houses (particularly in Kaliningrad). Those beers, sausages and sauerkraut magically tasted better than in the mainland Russia – was that because I knew I was in the former German land..? Those calorie-loaded meals brought me back to my two quick trips to Berlin, the city I magically fell in love with.
On this trip I also wanted to get a taste of Lithuania. My family name has always made me feel a special connection with this country. The Russia for ‘Lithuania’ is ‘Litva’ and my surname is Litvinova. No wonder that both me and my sister were nicknamed ‘Litva’ back at school. Apart from Lithuanian beer (which was OK), I got to try a pastry called šakotis. It is a ‘spiked’ tree cake made of egg dough. At a very popular seacoast Lithuanian restaurant in Zelenogradsk (just a few dozens of kilometers from the Lithuanian border) I had a wonderful meal of cepelinai (potato dumplings stuffed with ground meat) as well as cold Lithuanian summer soup (the equivalent of the Russian ‘okroshka’). Those lovely tastes brought mecloser to my surname.
Another dish evocative of the German past to be found in lots of restaurants (not only beer houses) is Königsberger Klopse. These are meatballs served with a sauce and capers. I think the best restaurant experience I had on this trip was in Kaliningrad at a place called Steindamm 99 where I had this dish. The wonderful service as well as a cute cat family living right here brought back those fond memories of European eateries.
Of course, being on a seacoast (not a frequent occasion for an average Russian) you have to get some seafood. In Kaliningrad region there aren’t upscale seafood restaurants, but a dish called stroganina (shavings) out of bonito (a fish only found here) is served everywhere. To be honest, I didn’t quite appreciate this local specialty. Later on I was told there was another way of eating it which was supposed to make it taste a lot better. Zander is also caught here in the Baltic Sea. We had it served super fresh right on the coast. Even though the place was unpretentious (but pet-friendly), it was the best fish I had on this Baltic trip. Kaliningrad-style breakfast which also included fish (the familiar herring as well as salmon) didn’t taste that good, but was a nice attempt at celebrating the local culinary identity. As a cheese lover forever fascinated by European (especially French and Italian produce), I was on the lookout for some local varieties. For some reason I didn’t find Tilsit cheese which was created in the 19th century in what is now Sovetsk. But right at the airport during my final hours in the region I was able to get some nice lavender caciotta…
Surprisingly, my food adventures in Kaliningrad Region were quite interesting and on some instances pretty European. Probably that’s because this part of life is the easiest to at least try to emulate. I am sure given the current popularity of the region, more efforts will be made in this direction.