11 August, 2009

The Russia Diaries: 11 August - Narzan

11 August 2009


Day one.

доброе утро! Good morning Moscow, and what a glorious, clear day. Having (somewhat) recovered from the vodka of the night before, we embark upon our journey in to the heart of Moscow's city center by piling in to the Chevrolet armed, upon Vadim's passionate insistence, with bottles of Bulgakov's favourite sparkling water Narzan (Вода минерала нарзан). Vadim loves both Bulgakov and his preferred seltzer water. Very much.

In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov doesn't merely talk of ordinary seltzer water, he mentions the brand by name. In one particularly brilliant scene, a group of writers attempt to purchase cold drinks at a refreshment stand, only to discover that the stand has nothing to offer whatsoever. It is an apt and sardonic sketch of 1930 Moscow manners.

"Give me some Narzan water," said Berlioz.
"There isn't any," replied the woman at the refreshment stand, taking umbrage for some reason.
"Got any beer?" inquired Bezdomny in a hoarse voice.
"The beer will be delivered later," the woman answered.
"So what have you got?" asked Berlioz.
"Apricot juice, only it's warm," said the woman.
"Wel, give us that then!..."

The apricot juice generated an abundance of yellow foam, and the air started smelling like a barbershop. The writers drank it down and immediately began hiccuping, paid their money, and went over and sat down on a bench facing the pond, with their backs to Bronnaya Street."

Since 1894 this water has been bottled in Kislovodsk, a city in the lush region of Stavropol in Ukraine. In Bulgakov’s time Narzan water was associated with this sunny resort town in the North Caucasus (comparable to Vittel in France).

Narzan water is a real taste of Russia, and comes in delightfully slim green bottles with a whimsical label. When communism collapsed, Narzan had assets that most other domestic enterprises could only dream of - a pre-Revolutionary brand name, an established reputation, and a quality product. But in everything else it was like any other company emerging from the dysfunctional- if secure- command economy. When regular orders from the state dried up, the factory was forced to switch to products targeted at mass consumers: cheap fortified wine and - OH! oh yes! - bedroom slippers. It was quite a step down from the days when the company made special deliveries to ailing Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in the 1920s.

But happily, today Narzan outperforms its Soviet peak producing 70 million liters per year and is back on the tables of the nation's elite, including the Kremlin. Vadim has cases of it, Kit has been a Narzan convert since his first visit in 1991, and I? It was love at first sip. Crisp. Clean. Delicious.

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