July 6, 2008

Chocolate, Cows, and Ode to Blini

As we walked into the Kraft factory in Kirzhach, Jeff Schagrin started singing "I've got a golden ticket" a la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was definitely like a visit to Willy Wonka's factory without the benefit of Oompa Loompas. The Kraft factory produces lots of products, but a majority of them involve CHOCOLATE! The guards took our passports at the door, but we hardly cared if they ever gave them back after they led us into a small room with a table heaped with candy bars, all produced right there in the factory. Fifteen minutes later, with sugar highs and endorphins enveloping us, we consented to leave nirvana for a tour of the plant.

We all had to wear shower-type caps, plastic covers on our shoes, and surgical-type gowns. We must have looked like something out of a Monty Python movie (or Oompa Loompa wannabes). It was hilarious.

We were literally shown the entire process of making candy bars and fancy filled candies (which Russians call 'pralines') starting from the warehouse which stores the basic ingredients (sugar, powdered milk, cocoa powder, etc.). Next we saw the tanks where these ingredients are dumped and mixed and then the room where they melt the cocoa butter and distill the chocolate liquor (RULE #1: DON'T EVER BOIL CHOCOLATE). The melting zones are called the Africa zones because they are the hottest rooms in the plant.

We saw enormous vats of fillings for candy bars and pralines (amaretto, strawberry, cognac, Irish Cream, fruits and nuts - YUM!). There are special machines to mix chocolate with fruits and nuts or to incorporate extra air into the chocolate for a special "whipped" chocolate bar that is very light and tasty.

Then onto the line where the bars and pralines are molded; filled (optional); jostled to release extra air and evenly distribute ingredients; chilled; unmolded; packed; and prepared for shipping.

Having worked in factories, it was interesting to see which tasks were automated (machine) and which were done by hand.

And have I mentioned the ever-present smell of chocolate in the air.

After lunch in the factory's canteen, we drove through the Russian countryside to a dairy farm, owned by an Englishman and run by two Americans (with a lot of Russian and Central Asian help). We saw cows being milked - quite a production - and learned the American farmers' perspectives on farming in Russia, bureaucracy, veterinary care (and medical care for humans), Russian winters, etc. It was all udderly fascinating...

Before we left the farm, we were treated to blini with homemade sour cream and jam. Not only were the blinis the best I had ever eaten, but the homemade sour cream tasted like whipped butter and of the three jams (apricot, cherry, raspberry), which were all excellent, the cherry was to die for. If I had any poetic genes in my body, I would have written an ode to blini on the spot.

As we boarded the bus, Galya - who had meant to say "Let's count the chickens" to make sure we were all accounted for, instead said "Let's count the little pigs." We all died laughing. The sweet lady turned ten shades of red, but it was a pretty appropriate word to have popped out of her mouth since that's what we all felt like having been stuffed to the gills with good food!

We raced back to Vladimir for a soccer game at their stadium. The Vladimir Torpedoes played the Moscow Torpedoes. Everyone expected the Moscow team to win - they were in a higher league than Vladimir, but we beat them 4-0! It was a lot of fun - Russians are VERY serious about their soccer and the spirit was contagious. Vladimir, Vladimir - davai, davai!

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