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Kiev, Ukraine. December. Another lifetime ago. 

A flashback puts me in Rod Taylor’s time machine and takes me to Osteria Pantagruel, near the opera house. The weather is turning nasty and the locals are looking nastier than normal as the snow begins to melt. Comrades slide to and fro on the dirty slush. Babushkas wrapped up like egg rolls hock walnuts, honey and the last of the season’s berries on the cobblestone streets outside the metro entrance. Get too close and they will take your eye out with a knitting needle.

Local girls in from the village wearing rabbit fur-trimmed coats, heavy war paint and knee-high boots walk in tow with grey-templed foreigners wearing jeans and New Balance sneakers. These last-chance-at-love punters have traveled afar to taste the delicacies of Kiev.

Entering the restaurant, I pass Checkpoint Charlie and proceed down to the right with token local guide. A thick-necked man clothed in black turtleneck — the official color of Kiev — sits akimbo to the dining room table plan, facing out toward the entrance. No bowl of pasta in front of him. Instead, a semi-automatic sits snugly on his lap. Like a boa constrictor, every new client is observed; his release is tightened or loosened. The table of oligarchs sit to his right in complete isolation, enjoying the pasta of one of the few Italian restaurants worth its salt in Kiev. 

The author, in Kiev.

I have been coming here now more than 10 years and have watched things change as progressive governments change, with the odd revolution thrown in. A decade ago, a wagyu tomahawk chop would have cost a condo. Asparagus, a rare item seldom seen. A mango, considered a golden egg back then, has become more readily available thanks to imports from Italy.

But walk through the historic Besarabsky Market on Baseina Street and this is where the charm lies for me in Kiev. Sixty-year-old, sneaker-wearing foreigners shop the rose market before their pre-arranged date with a local village girl. Coffee and tea shops chuck out vile concoctions in small white plastic cups. Babushkas stand behind the counters selling pickled vegetables, smoked meats, fishes and, of course, caviar of dubious origin. If it’s black, it’s hot, and you will find it at Baseina market.

When it’s in season, the produce is definitive farm-to-table stuff. Apples, walnuts, honey, dill, pears, root vegetables all still wear the local village dirt of their birth.

I would say that apples are the most loved of all fruit. Chocolates, of course, are revered and desired by Russians and Ukrainians, but apples come first (closely followed by cherries) when the heart grows dear.

Years ago, in another lifetime, I had a charter where, initially, the principal Mrs. refused dessert. Toward the latter stage, she put her regime on hold and made this request: a simple apple tart.

In moments of happiness and comfort, people resort to the favorites from their childhood.

Larissa’s Apple and Almond Tart

To make the frangipane:

  • 6 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 cup fine sugar
  • 1 cup almond meal
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 Tbsp. plain flour
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. almond extract

To make a classic, sweet pastry case, cream the butter and sugar. Add the almond meal and then slowly the eggs. Finish with the flour.

Flatten out under cling film to the size of a large dinner plate. 

Method

  • In a prebaked sweet pastry case, add enough almond paste to cover the base to a depth of half-inch to three-quarters-of-an-inch.
  • Fan out thickly sliced apples of your choice. Sprinkle with coarse white sugar.
  • Bake at 350-375 F for 30-35 minutes.

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