There's no place for mushrooms in a dish of beef stroganoff, insists Anastasia Kosovskaya as we stride down St Petersburg's main drag, the Nevsky Prospect.
"Beef, cream, onion and mashed potato," she says. "No mushroom!"
But summer has arrived after a long, hard winter – "January was minus 37, May was minus 2, the snow only started to melt on May the 9th" – and the meadows and forests beyond the city limits are bubbling over with mushrooms.
"We have just 35 sunny days a year," Kosovskaya says, peering up at the sky, "and today is beautiful!"
Summer's warmth has triggered those fungal spores and the city is overflowing with their bounty. You can buy them everywhere, in every formulation: dry mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, frozen mushrooms. Just don't add them to beef stroganoff.
My appetite is whet by all this talk of food, but I'm soon distracted by the stories of music and literature and revolution entombed in the buildings lining the Nevsky Prospect. This city is the receptacle of Russian history, a place founded on imperialist principles and transformed through revolutionary uprising; it has changed names often enough – St Petersburg, Petrograd, Leningrad, St Petersburg again – but has somehow retained its singular disposition.
"I think we have some sort of mentality for revolution," Kosovskaya says of her city's residents.
This tussle between aristocracy and proletarianism is contained within the baroque and neoclassical apartment blocks that sweep down the boulevard towards the Neva River (where, on Zayachy Island, Dostoevsky was imprisoned and the Romanovs laid to rest). Once the homes of nobles, they were converted after the Bolshevik Revolution into communal lodgings.
"You can have a room, but not a whole apartment," Kosovskaya says. "Let me tell you, it's not the best thing. Queues! You have to wake up at five in the morning to wash your hair."
Here on a corner is the far more salubrious Grand Hotel Europe, gathering place for writers and musicians during the 19th century. For guests such as Tchaikovsky and Debussy, it would have been a short walk to the nearby St Petersburg Philharmonia. The music halls operated throughout the 900-day siege of Leningrad during WWII, and Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Symphony No. 7 (titled Leningrad) during that time. It was played by a starving orchestra "and broadcast live across the city, so people could hear it", Kosovskaya says.
It feels wrong, in light of the orchestra's famished effort, to be staring up now at the candy pink Stroganov Palace, where that legendary dish was said to have been devised. Its inventor, says Kosovskaya, was given freedom from serfdom and money with which to open a restaurant – as long as he named his signature dish after his benefactor, Count Pavel Alexandrovich Stroganov. In the centuries since, the recipe has gained fame across the world – though some heretical cooks have sullied it with mushrooms.
But when in St Petersburg, we'll eat beef stroganoff the way its inventor and patron intended. And so we sit down to lunch in an old Volga – the car of the post-war elite – that doubles as a dining table in the surrealist Sakvoyazh Beremennoi Shpionki cafe near the Nevsky Prospect. The stroganoff is rich and creamy and – for a city built on revolutions – defiantly anti-revolutionary; it's served mushroom-free, just as its noble namesake demanded.
Catherine Marshall travelled as a guest of Urban Adventures and Intrepid Travel.
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Doha, and daily from Canberra to Doha via Sydney, with connections from Doha to St Petersburg. See qatarairways.com
Urban Adventures' three-hour-long St Petersburg Discovery Tour includes lunch, public transport and the services of an English-speaking guide, and costs from $74.41 per person. See urbanadventures.com