“You can take pictures, yes. Not today.”
Svetlana is smiling politely as she thrusts her arm toward a patch of bare shelf in the back of the Golden Grain Russian deli and store. She is shaking her head and saying “too much work,” referring to all of the cooking and baking to be completed before the Russian Orthodox celebration of Christmas Eve, January 7.
I gently insist that there is still plenty to see; she reluctantly agrees and after showing me her vast collection of salami, cheeses, blintzes and cakes, makes her exit without explanation. The rows of shelves in the modestly-sized shop are stuffed with items straight out of a fairytale: Chocolates wrapped in colorful foils to look like matryoshka dolls; digestive biscuits decorated with vines and leaves; glass bottles of tangy, Armenian pomegranate wine in the shapes of fish, bears and violins.
“You just need one glass of this pomegranate wine and you’re going to be able to play the violin,” jokes Robert, husband of Svetlana and co-owner of the store, smiling from behind an impressive mustache.
The Golden Grain has been humming along quietly for 15 years. Hidden deep in a forest of sprawling apartment complexes built in the 1970s, the heft of their patrons stem from former Soviet Republic countries and neighboring Eastern European nations: Belarus, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Ukraine, to name a few. Svetlana also fills a special section of the cooler with her own homemade cakes, marinated salads, stuffed eggplant and cabbage rolls, and soups from scratch, such as borscht and Georgian-style chicken soup.
“Georgia. Not the state—the country,” clarifies Robert, standing with the refrigerator door propped open as he holds a tub of magenta borscht like it was a baby bird. “Since the article came out in February 2013, the first question Americans ask when they call is ‘Do you have borscht?’ This is the Russian food they are most familiar with. And we always have.”
Robert is referring to an piece on the shop by the Houston Chronicle which brought a good deal of attention to the family-owned Euro market. The clipping is taped to the window of the store’s entrance. I ask him what he wishes Americans would get familiar with, and it only takes him a moment to reach across to a neighboring shelf and hold a can of greens, searching for the word in English.
“Sorrel soup,” he nods with certainty. “Unfortunately we don’t have, but after Christmas we will.”
Sorrel soup, also called “green borscht,” is made with with onions, salt, potato, herbs and wild greens in place of beets. Some recipes also call for egg and other root vegetables, but it is consistently topped with a dollop of sour cream before serving.
Continuing on the same question, he goes back to the cooler and pulls out a large pack of two salt-dried fish that stare unseeingly at me from within their vacuum-packed casing. He introduces them as vobla (less enticingly referred to as Caspian Roach) and says that they are perfect with some bread and beer. A little online research can teach you how to flay open the vobla, which should be eviscerated to comply with health regulations, pull out the backbone and pick out small parts of the flesh from the inside out. Wash it down with Russian beer, which will help with the saltiness and gummy texture—which can take a bit of getting used to but can quickly become addictive. Robert recommends Baltika beer numbers three, four, five, seven, and nine—three being the most popular and therefore, not in stock, but will be again soon. If you want to try this, it is advised to not skip the beer. It’s a marriage. Volba is also intended to be eaten slowly over the course of an hour accompanied by conversation with a few friends, as is the custom in the Old World.
Many of these items are distributed by other specialty shops in and around Houston, but few will leave you with the feeling that you successfully snuck out of the country without your passport like a visit to the Golden Grain does. Svetlana also wants you to know that she has spent fifteen years finding the best products, building one of the biggest selections, and has kept the prices fair, even for luxury items like green and black caviar sold in bulk.
“And you can’t find my food anywhere else,” she adds.
I asked what was the best way for people to know if something was in stock and Robert held an imaginary phone to his ear.
“They can call.”