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A Day with Olga at Moscow's GUM

by Fred Steinberg

GUM, Moscow’s state department store, is not really a department store and in no way similar to the famous, recently bankrupt, “Gumps” of San Francisco. In-reality, GUM is more akin to the Mall of America, three parallel, three-story, architecturally unique malls which occupy the bulk of the east side of the giant Red Square.

GUM was originally built in the late 19th century featuring a combination of Russian medieval architecture with a steel framework and a unique giant glass roof, similar-to some of the large European Victorian railroad stations. The roof, weighing some 700 tons, contains over 20,000 panes of glass, lined with Finish granite, Tarusa marble and limestone. Marshall Stalin closed GUM in 1930 and moved in government ministries and departments. During the post-World War II years of the Soviet Union, the top floor became “Section 100,” a secret clothing store opened only to top party officials. Stalin planned to demolish the three buildings in 1947, but never got around to doing it. His successor, Georgi Malenkov, had GUM restored and reopened in 1953 as a sign of easing tensions with the west. It’s multi-use theater and famous winter ice skating rink on adjacent Red Square were restored and reopened ten years ago.

A mecca for tourists who make Gum one of Moscow’s five most popular attractions, you can wander GUM’s 160 shops for hours without hearing a word of Russian. But enter one of the 15 food outlets and you will be among locals who have made GUM the go-to foodie capital of Moscow. As dedicated foodies, my wife Maria and our host Olga Sukurova, a Muscovite former student of mine, planned a culinary day of touring and dining at GUM. We started with a light breakfast at “Coffeemania,” which features its own roasted coffee and a wide variety of Russian pastries, sharing a cheese pierogi, a slice of chocolate plum cake and a trubochka -- a thick crusted bread roll stuffed with pastry cream. This striking coffee shop overlooks GUM’s central fountain and features oak framed glass tables and luxurious fabric covered arm chairs.

For lunch we opted for Stolovaya-57, a traditional Russian self-service canteen which features a wide variety of traditional Russian dishes from borscht to blini and knish’s to khinkali (beef dumplings). We sampled the local solyanka soup, stuffed cabbage, baked Russian chicken with rice, cherry strudel and sorbet.

Dinner was at the GUM’s elegant Bosco Café fronting Red Square.  We dined beneath its giant unique chandelier of Murano glass made specially at the Seguso factory in Venice.  Our meal of borscht, beef stroganoff, Biskvit, a sweet wine cake and a chocolate tart, was served on porcelain dinnerware, specially designed and manufactured by Richard Gineri in Florence to match the café’s ceiling frescos. For an afternoon snack we tried first rate ice cream, featured in a number of carts throughout the store.

But no foodie visit to Gum can afford to miss its gourmet food and beverage emporium highlight, Gastronom – 1 which occupies almost one-third of the complex’s 250-yard long first floor. An architectural treasure itself, it features marble columns, elaborate arches, huge chandeliers and art-worthy signage. Even the leather-handled baskets inspire comfort and elegance. Separate areas are dedicated to everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to gourmet deli items and Moscow’s largest wine collection.   The large gourmet deli section features live lobsters, oysters and crabs.  A huge salad bar and a sausage counter are local favorites for take-out. Hundreds of cheese choices, traditional and modern deserts and candies are featured and kiosks selling gourmet ice cream, fresh sushi and Beluga caviar dot the isles dividing the various sections.

 For a bio break, we could not resist the “Historic Bathroom” where for 70 Rubles ($ 1:00) you experience marble bathroom fixtures, teak wood walls and gold trimmed mirrors.

If you visit Russia, a visit to Moscow’s Gum is a must. You can purchase most anything from apples to art and furs to flowers and dine like a gourmet local while you experience one of the world’s most unique department stores.

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