The Swiss Tourist Board is missing a trick. Having been to Albania recently and hearing the country described as the 'Switzerland of the Balkans', I reflected on the reasons the Swiss don't return the favour and market themselves as the 'Albania of the Alps'. My mind went back to a different time to another Alpine paradise in exile, in the Ural Mountains, and the nondescript town of Krasnoufimsk, which I was assured was in the heart of 'Switzerland of the Urals'.
Perhaps the mind is playing tricks over the 18 years since I visited, as I don't recall pristine lakes and snow-capped mountains in idyllic mountains inhabited by cows with bells and shepherds called Heidi. The only thing that sticks in my mind is the best example I can across of the efficiency of the Soviet distribution system - no bright lights of Geneva and Zurich in my memory, just the nagging question of how a fully-functioning brewery on the edge of town could fail to supply a single drop. An investigation of the brewery itself led to some more baffling questions.
This is not a drinking blog post, although writing about life in rural Russia without reference to a drop of the good stuff is beyond my powers, but drinking was a part of the story.
It was my first official trip and I was determined to make a good impression. A week earlier I had met a girl from Birmingham in an Irish pub in Moscow who was looking for Russian-speaking foreigners to work as aid workers in more remote areas of the country. The pay was four times what I was earning, the adventurer within me awakened and I found myself on a flight to the Ural Mountains three days later, signed contract in hand, proving that I was now employed as a Milk Monitor, a title I had least enjoyed at prep school, for the handsome pay of $1,500 a month.
The project, funded by the American government, seemed to be fulfilling a critical need. As the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union, pollution was a major issue and the knock-on health effects were shocking - it had been reported that 70% of women were unable to lactate. Coupled with the dire economic shortages leading to cattle being slaughtered and the legendary Soviet distribution system, fresh milk was an ever scarcer commodity. A huge targeted distribution of milk powder to pregnant women, large families and children under three was intended to partially address the problem.
I was dispatched to Krasnoufimsk with my Russian colleague Yana after a few days. Our mission was to visit the dairy in the town to gather information on production levels, meet with local council officials to collect lists of potential beneficiaries, then visit a percentage of those beneficiaries to establish that they were genuine. While I was not the first foreigner from the agency to visit, I was the first to spend the night, and that was deemed as cause for celebration by someone. As the town had been off-limits in a closed zone (and hardly a screaming must-see on the tourist trail, despite its Swiss pretensions), a foreigner spending the night was a landmark of sorts.
I remember little of the evening itself, except that there was excess on all levels and it was very jolly. Soviet brotherhood came to the fore as the Georgian wine, Azeri champagne, Armenian brandy and Russian vodka all contributed harmoniously to the mother of all hangovers the following morning. I remembered a lot of toasting to Margaret Thatcher, Winston Curchill and Alan Shearer, each followed by the mandatory downing of sto gram, or 100 grammes of vodka - neat and in one hit (it was only much later in my time in Russia that I learned about the short life expectancy of plants in the vicinity of drinking dens - the dispensing of vodka into unwitting plant pots probably saved my life). In a bid to stem the tide of hard liquor intake, I thought I would switch to beer in this feast of excess, especially as I had seen a brewery on the drive in.
"Your vodka is great," I began in faltering Russian, "but I am more of a beer man and would be keen to try your local brew."
As a conversation killer, I don't think I have ever topped that line.
After what seemed an age of embarrassed silence, feet shuffling and general murmuring, it was explained to me that unfortunately there was no beer in the town, hadn't been for a month and wouldn't be for a while. Realising the embarrassment I had caused, I poured myself 200 grammes, toasted the town and put my liver under more pressure, but the damage was done. My host determined to sort the issue by calling the brewery director and arranging a tour the following morning.
The last thing on my mind as I was awoken by Yana and a sledgehammer going in my head was a tour of a brewery, but there was no escaping the invitation. I wasn't even sure I could navigate our 9am tour of the dairy, not great hangover material, but we had to fulfil our obligations and dutifully appeared outside the brewery gates at 10am as arranged.
Having worked as a student in a brewery in Munich, I had some idea of the process and wasn't expecting the latest equipment, which was just as well. The process was labour intensive, with a less than semi-automated production facility generously augmented by human help at every turn. While I remember one worker, whose sole job it was to balance the beer cap on the top before the machine pressed it down, and another who had to manually apply the labels to each bottle, it was the eagle-eyed old lady scouring every bottle who had me fascinated.
The rickety conveyor pushed forward the recently filled bottles in single file, her eyes darting expertly over each new arrival. I had no idea what her job was, but the concentration was complete. After perhaps a hundred bottles, more, she finally pounced, deftly lifting an offending bottle from the pack. I leaned forward to ascertain what made this bottle stand out from the crowd and saw that its neck was full! Too much beer in this bottle and all bottles should be equal.
By now enthralled, I turned my attention once more to the eagle, and satisfaction was soon forthcoming. After perhaps another minute, a second bottle was plucked from the crowd, this one a little light on liquid. With expert movements, the imbalance was rectified and both bottles sent on their way to the bottle top balancer. I asked her how long she had been doing the job. Thirty years was the reply.
As esteemed guests (if only they knew), we were ushered up to the director's office to meet the man who ran the factory. I was surprised to find he was German and speculated internally that he might have fallen victim to the misrepresentations of the Swiss Urals Tourist Board, until he told me that his father settled here after the war. I wanted to pursue that avenue, the ex-German POW community in the Urals but, along with beer distribution networks, I had a feeling the interest would be unwelcome.
I had more pressing problems, such as how to avoid drinking anything that would surely be offered. Yana, my teetotal colleague, who was clearly enjoying the moral superiority of clear mind and head, gleefully told me that there could be no greater offence than my refusing to drink.
And so my fate was sealed. A phone call was made, beer summonsed. The door opened and the local brew was brought forward and placed on the table in a... bucket. I watched in horror as my non-comrades each presented passable excuses as to why they could not partake - the driver was driving, the director was on duty, my host was too hung over. I was handed a half-litre glass. There was no obvious etiquette for extracting the glass from the bucket, so I simply dipped my glass in and scooped it out. It was foul.
Yana's helpful (gleeful?) cultural advice was to drink a minimum of three, after which the Azeri white came out, a signal for a sharp exit if ever there was one. I made my excuses and we were soon on the road, two cases of the bad stuff in the boot.
It was my first cultural lesson of doing business in Russia. Invent a health or religious reason why you can't drink. Or perish. Not quite the marketing slogan the Switzerland of the Urals might have been striving for, but an essential survival tip.