Or, From Russia (Sort of) with Love
Quick: What is Europe’s second-largest country? If you can’t figure it out from the title of this post, I’m worried about you.
As your typical Westerner, and particularly, your average American, it took me awhile to figure out that the owners of South Nashville’s most fascinating Eastern European deli and market were not Russian. Or to be precise, that Ukraine is not Russia. At least not anymore.
I should know better, awhile back I read The Carpathians by Janet Frame and because I’m such a geocentric dork, I had to look that word up. Turns out that’s a mountain range worth noting. [I have not read Jules Verne’s The Castle of the Carpathians, which takes place in the region, unlike Frame’s book.] For what it’s worth, Bram Stoker's Dracula had his castle in the Carpathian mountains, but I’m guessing it was the Romanian side.
What is important to know about the Ukraine for our purposes is that if you are traveling from the west it is the gateway to Belarus and Russia, and if you are coming from the east it is your ticket to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova. That means Ukraine is an Eastern European melting pot, but I’m probably stepping on some toes for saying so. It is six times larger than the lovely state of Tennessee.
If you live in the Ukraine, your diet is going to be influenced by many other countries and ethnicities. Your food is also going to vary dramatically moving eastward from the rugged hills of the Carpathians across the wide plains in the middle and southward to the mysterious Black Sea and Sea of Azov. As a Ukrainian, you’d have access to just about everything from a Polish pirogue (although they have something similar called a varenyky) to a Turkish kebab, as long as you don’t mind a boat ride.
I know, I know. These European people kill me. But trust me; they’ve paid dearly for their euro melting pot. Still are.
So, returning to the real topic at hand, where else in Nashville could you choose from a gorgeous selection of yummy cheeses, meats and fish, get superior European chocolate and find delicate white dried porcini mushrooms? Where else could you pick up raisin and cheese blintzes, Siberian raviolis, handmade Varenikis (like pierogies), kielbasas, a variety of Russian beers and delicate cakes and cookies? Where else is there a wall of prettily packaged bulk candies that instantly remind you of Sugar Plum fairies? A place where you can wire some euros to your babushka back home and check out an assortment of Russian and American (in Russian) movies? The answer: Aleksey’s of course!
(Please forgive the shake on this photo, I get excited around the candy bins).
This Russian and European Eastern market in Berry Hill was the brainchild of Alexei Khimenko, a former dancer with the Nashville Ballet. Originally from Moscow, Khimenko decided to open this little gem in 2003 after searching for and not finding many of his traditional goodies and extensively researching the import food market. Khimenko eventually sold it to his Ukrainian friends, husband-and-wife team Yuriy and Yevheniya Kvaternyuk, so that he could focus on wine and liquor imports.
The Kvaternyuk’s are from Vinnytsia, 160 miles southwest of Kiev. Suprisingly, Vinnytsia has some key features in common with Nashville. It has a population of about 400,000 and is located on the Southern Buh River. I wonder if its nickname is Old Muddy. While not a capitol, Vinnytsia (or Winnica in Polish) is the administrative center of the province. It is home to one of the largest Baptist churches in Europe while Nashville is host to the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s no wonder Yuriy, a kind but quiet dark-haired man, and Yevheniya, a charming petite blonde, are at home here. So I was surprised when I found out that Nashville is not the sister city to Vinnytsia. No, Birmingham, Alabama gets that distinction. Someone care to explain that to me?
Anyway, if you go, you will likely be greeted by one of the Kvaternyuk’s and an assistant named Inna, also from the Ukraine. Now is a great time to go, as they are slightly slower in the summer, according to Yuriy. You can start tasting the merchandise and figuring out what you like and don’t like. Come Christmas they get busy with special orders and folks seeking novel gifts, such as bear salami (yes, you read that correctly, click on photos to enlarge).
Yuriy says that all of his imported stock comes through a distributor in New York. He features food and drink from Greece, Poland, Hungary, Germany and France. I even saw a can of Australian beef goulash. In addition to beers, they have a wide selection of sodas, juices, teas and coffees. He says he likes to put out new items and pays attention to customer feedback. So if there’s something you are looking for, or something you really like, tell him or Yevheniya.
Not everything at Aleksey’s is for me. I haven’t had the heart to tell anyone in the store that I’m mostly vegetarian, and what’s more, even if I did eat meat, it definitely would not include head cheese, veal roll, or blood and tongue. Dried eel and whole pickled tomatoes are out, too.
Fortunately my husband, Squash, loves sardines and other stinky fish in a can, and there’s a large selection. My only rule: Please don’t eat it in the house.
I do love the selection of cheeses, deli-style and prepackaged in the dairy section.
I also love the assortment of cookies, cakes and breads:
And the chocolate and candies:
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ukraine has made clear its desires to join the EU bandwagon and 2015 is a possible entry date. The very photogenic Yulia Tymoshenko became prime minister in December 2007 and appears to be friends with higher ups at NATO and the EU, so she may be able to get things done.
In the meantime, please drop by this quaint yet hip Slavic/European deli and market located at 718 Thompson Lane (across from 100 Oaks mall) and pick up some goodies. You won’t be disappointed. And if you are new to the area, and speak Russian, by all means stop by here.
Budmo! Na zdrowie! Egészségetekre! Budem zdorovy! Noroc! Stolitschka! Prost! Stin ijiasas! Santé!