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#4 - RW 7268
The Times (UK)
July 26, 2003
Book of the week
Fisher kings
In a brilliant analysis of Russias relationship with caviar, Vanora Bennett paints a vibrant portrait of an anarchic society in the making, says Ian Kelly

By Vanora Bennett
Review, 14.99; 208pp
ISBN 0 755 30063 7
Buy the book

I FOUND myself in Chechnya on September 11, 2001 eating cheap lumpfish roe, as it happens and the consensus among the Russian military huddled round the radio was that the Americans had it coming. As one FSB (the federal security service) heavy opined in my general direction: The Blacks (Caspians, Chechens the poor southerners) have been bombing us like this for years. No one cared in the West.

Vanora Bennetts darkly seductive tour through new Russia makes a strong case, inter alia, that the bombing of the Kaspiisk tower block was not the work of Chechen terrorists at all, but of the caviar mafia people she knew, such as Sergei and Rudolf, who made more money exporting illegally fished caviar in the Nineties than the average Russian could earn in 400 years. Whats the difference? they said. Theyll shoot you whether you take one tonne or four. So we took four.

The point is typical of the broad range and emotional punch of this finely judged travelogue: caviar may be Vanora Bennetts Proustian madeleine biscuit, but her obsession goes beyond the gastronomic. The Taste of Dreams mines the rich black seam running through the Russian soul: a dream-food that is also a symbol of Russias tumultuous recent history. Russians have a word for the dangerous wildness of people like my caviar eaters, Bennett writes, living disobediently among the timid in a giant bureaucracy, ignoring the absurdly strict rules, glimmering with selfish glee. The word is azart. Azart makes you rich. It makes you powerful. It brings you limos and lovers for every day of the week. Even saying the word out loud makes you open your eyes wide with excitement and flare your nostrils. To a Russian caviar is edible azart. Azart is the new spirit of the age in Russia, and caviar is its soul food.

Those soft, dark little ova that yield their sea-fresh creaminess on the tongue-tip have a long and proud lineage in both the history of Russian over-indulgence and the Wests love and fear of exotic Muscovy. It wasnt always so. Sturgeon once swam in the Thames and more recently the Seine, where one of the last hauled ashore was spied by Antonin Carme, the famous chef, en route from a cooking date with Napoleons sister. Industrial pollution did for the sturgeon in the West, as it may yet in the Caspian tributaries, and even the Volga. But meanwhile its eggs have become a symbol, Bennett argues, of rarefied luxury, of a forgotten Eden, of sex, death, dreams and money. In the new Russia a Russia Bennett is better placed than most to comment on after half a lifetimes love affair with the country caviar has become much more. It has become, in the story of the benighted sturgeon, symbolic of the cost of Communisms demise and the spawning of wild free Russian capitalism. The statistics are shattering: Illegal fishing is now thought to account for 10,000 tonnes of sturgeon annually, compared with the official combined catch in 2001 of just 650 tonnes by Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Either way, thats a lot of dead sturgeon.

Bennett catches the dichotomy of the relationship many Russians seem to have with food; somehow never at the centre of things as vodka is, yet a close reminder of how bad things have been recently. We are not civilised Europeans, you know. We are wild Eurasians, Scythians, Mongols. As the sturgeon knows all too well. The sense of loss, and loss of pride, as well as the exuberant and fearful excitement at the possibilities of the future, is exactly the taste of Russia now. As a political and social commentator Bennett is shrewd and humane, but she is equally accurate, heartfelt and knowing describing the tastes of caviar full of promise and mystery; the taste of dreams.

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