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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA

City Beat

Elysium on Tverskaya
Text Olga Mironenko Photos Edit Hunn

Tverskaya Ulitsa near Pushkin Square is familiar turf to most Muscovite pedestrians. So familiar, in fact, that many who hurry past #14 Tverskaya Ulitsa have never gone inside to see its gorgeous interior. And even among those who stop in now and again for an apple or two, there are few who realize the drama of Eliseyevsky’s history.

The story begins in the early 19th century with Pyotr Kasatkin, a serf on the estate of Count Sheremetyev. A gifted gardener, Kasatkin discovered how he could grow strawberries in the middle of winter, delivering his miraculous harvest to the count’s dinner table one evening. When the amazed count promised to grant the humble gardener a single wish, Kasatkin promptly asked for his freedom.

The count kept his promise, and Pyotr and his wife headed to Petersburg, where they sold oranges on the street for one kopeck, carrying them on trays they balanced on their heads. Eventually, Pyotr was able to earn enough money to buy the freedom of his sons and his brother. With the help of these extra hands, their fruit-vending business prospered.

Noting the market in Petersburg for exotic luxury goods, Pyotr headed to Madeira to buy wine to bring back and sell in the Russian capital. (Although it is not known how he managed to communicate with the locals, it is worth noting reports from Soviet visitors to Madeira of hearing Russian swear words cheerfully uttered by local winemakers.) His efforts paid off, as wealthy Petersburgers snapped up the Portuguese wine, and soon Pyotr and his brother opened the Eliseyevsky Brothers Trading House in St. Petersburg. (The brothers chose the name in honor of their father, Elisey.)

His strategy was not only to provide the exotic, but to make it available year-round, even in the dead of winter. Perfect quality and impeccable service rounded out his business philosophy. Only the most flawless specimens were on offer, and trained sales clerks stood at the ready to explain to Petersburg’s privileged the benefits of starting off their day with a lovely papaya, tastiest when sprinkled with a tangy bit of lime juice to complement its sweetness.

Building on his Madeira success, Pyotr expanded his wine selection into the most extensive available in Russia. The successful Eliseyev family invested in their own shipping fleet so as to more cheaply transport their exotic goods. They also acquired a number of wine cellars in France, Portugal and Spain. By the end of the 19th century, the Eliseyev family, its serf roots notwithstanding, had become official members of Russia’s aristocracy, by tsar’s decree. In addition, they had opened two more stores — one in Kiev and another in Moscow.

Founded by former serfs, the Eliseyevsky store sought to provide urbanites with the utmost in culinary luxury and exoticism.

The opening of the latter in 1901 was a much-anticipated event that drew a great deal of public attention. Construction proceeded behind fencing that kept out the eyes of the curious. Naturally, rumors of all kinds flew through Moscow society, who breathlessly awaited the opening of what was certain to be an exquisite store. The exterior wowed the spectators gathered, but what was inside aroused even more emotion. A beautifully designed and executed esthetic achievement whose ornate decoration embodied the philosophy of the store and its attentive owners.

Pyotr’s son, Grigory, now head of the family business, had personally laid out the goods on the shelves of the new store, arranging the fruit into pyramids. (It is said that after the opening, the store carefully and proudly preserved this eye-pleasing display technique.) Like its sister in Petersburg, the Moscow Eliseyevsky store offered a mind-boggling choice of wines from everywhere imaginable and an endless array of exotic fruit, coff ee, tea, and spices. The Eliseyevs, in fact, were the first to introduce olive oil to the Russian public.

Because the entire concept of the store hinged on the exotic, it had no dairy section as we know today. (After all, what could be more mundane than a carton of milk?) What you could find there, however, was every type of cheese you could think of, dozens of kinds of fresh fish, even truffles. Needless to say, it was frequented only by the well-to-do; ordinary folks couldn’t afford to shop there, let alone imagine what on earth a truffle was.

Muscovites breathlessly awaited the reopening of the renovated Eliseyevsky in 2004 much as they had the opening of the original store over a century earlier.

Until the Russian Revolution, the store was a Moscow icon, setting the culinary trends for the city’s high society. And during the Soviet era it became Gastronom #1, another one of those often empty stores where everything (except lines) was in short supply and there was barely a semblance of selection, not to mention exotica. Unofficially, however, the stock at Gastronom #1 was not so hopeless. Around the corner from the store’s main entrance on Ulitsa Tverskaya, through a side door accessible from Kozlovsky Pereulok, the store’s management dispensed boxes filled with delectable treats, foreign and domestic, to lucky members of the Soviet elite.

In the 1990s the store, like so much else in Russia, was in decline until it closed for renovation in 2003. Before its reopening the following year, curious Muscovites, remembering the beauty of the store’s interior even in Soviet times, were full of anticipation not unlike they had been over a century earlier as they awaited the unveiling of the original Moscow Eliseyevsky Magazin.

After learning the history of the store, I decided to pay it a visit, looking for signs of the past in Eliseyevsky’s present. Its interior is still stunning, its surfaces cleaner and lighting better than they were in the Soviet time. In the food hall, antique-looking plates hang above modern products. In appropriate tribute to the Eliseyevs, the shelves and cases were filled with products from all over the world, near and far.

During a quick stroll down one aisle of the wine section, located in its own room, I counted bottles from over 12 countries, from France to Chile to New Zealand. In the produce section, there was an extensive selection of ripelooking fruit, including some exotic items that I, for one, had never heard of before. Although the plentiful inventory was arranged in neat, colorful rows – with papaya at then end, as in the old days – I was disappointed (just as, I suspect, Grigory would be), not to find any fruit pyramids. And there was no watchful sales assistant nearby to advise me on what would make the tastiest and most healthful breakfast.

There was, however, another pair of eyes observing the scene. If you look right above the entrance to the wine section, you’ll see a portrait of Grigory Eliseyev, son of Pyotr. Despite the passage of time, the store’s ethos of luxury and opulence seems to have endured, and Grigory looks pleased. Perhaps ironically, not far from the portrait stands a refrigerator case filled with milk, so unwanted by the store founders. But perhaps the Eliseyevs would overlook this concession to modern convenience and be comforted by the thought that their customers froth this milk in their home cappuccino machines to drink with the high-end espresso sold on the opposite end of the floor.

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