Blan-Manzhe with the Taste of Pear and Cream

[fiction]

Her husband had said of the last bonbon, “These are not bad.” So, Victoria saved the green wrapper with the drawing of pears and a few weeks later, back at the Russian grocery, showed it to the cashier. “These were a part of last month’s assortment.”

The cashier disappeared in the back. Victoria picked up some farmer’s cheese, herring, a package of roasted buckwheat groats: the staples. Waiting for the cashier to return, she contemplated the bonbon selection.

Her husband, born and raised in American suburbia, couldn’t fully comprehend the difference between the supermarket cottage cheese and the farmer’s cheese that she bought at the Russian store (he did enjoy the syrniki she made with the farmer’s cheese). The buckwheat was fine as a side to steak, but for breakfast it couldn’t compete with his oatmeal, regardless of its nutritional advantages. He had no interest in herring—far too salty. The bonbons, he wanted to like. They brought disappointment upon disappointment. Too sweet. Too gummy. Not enough chocolate. Too much liquor. “Must Russians ruin even their sweets with vodka?”

The cashier appeared, smelling of cigarette smoke. “Come back next week; we should receive the next shipment by then.”

The next time Victoria got to the store on a Sunday evening. At the end of the weekend, the candy bins were down to the last few hard candies, the sucking caramels. Nothing remotely related to pear.

In retrospect, she should’ve recognized this as a sign of trouble. When does a Russian store forget to restock sweets? On her following trip, a big sign in the window announced the store’s closing. While Victoria contemplated the sign, another customer arrived. An elderly woman with bright orange hair. “This figures. The owners were losing money,” the woman said. She looked at Victoria with a disapproving mien. “You kids are growing up all-American. You want brand names.”

Victoria looked for the candies online. Blan-manzhe, it turned out, was Russian for the French blanc-manger, spelled as blancmange in English and described as being similar to panna cotta in taste and appearance. Poet Alexander Pushkin, she read, had been fond of blanc-manger with chocolate sponge. Victoria couldn’t remember any such dessert in her mother’s repertoire, but she’d been seven when her family emigrated from the former Soviet Union. Once in the United States, her mother came to rely on frozen cheesecake.

Studying the wrapper, Victoria found in fine print the name of the factory in Russia. She visited the factory’s website, and eventually, slowly parsing the Cyrillic alphabet, clicked through to the page with the list of their assortment. Three hundred grams of the blan-manzhe candies sold for the price of fifty-one rubles, in selected areas, which did not include distribution outside of Russia. A phone number was provided for the international distributors. Victoria called that number and listened to several minutes of dial tone before giving it up.

The factory, she learned from the website, was a part of a conglomerate that united eighty-three sweets factories in Russia and controlled the market. The conglomerate, in its turn, was owned by a holding company that also owned a bank, a real estate developer, and a boutique hotel chain. The man behind the holding company had amassed more than six hundred million dollars and was on the list of top one hundred wealthiest men in Russia. Victoria kept reading. One website claimed that this man had started his career as a pickpocket and a strongman in Novosibirsk, that he’d served twenty years in jail, and moved to Moscow just in time for perestroika. At the time when Victoria’s parents decided to leave the Soviet Union, he’d made his fortune by swindling people like them out of the privatization vouchers and gained control of one factory after another.

She looked at the grass-green wrapper with the drawing of pears, one whole and one halved. Her husband didn’t seem to mind that the white chocolate shell coated the mouth with the taste of vegetable oil and the gelatinous neon-green filling looked like a biohazardous waste.

“These are not bad at all,” her husband had said, unwrapping that last bonbon and sliding it into his mouth. He gave it three chews and chased it down with beer.

 

Olga Zilberbourg is a bilingual author; born in St. Petersburg, Russia, she calls San Francisco her home. Her third book of stories was published in Russia in 2016. Her English-language fiction has appeared in World Literature Today, Epiphany, Narrative Magazine, Santa Monica Review, J Journal, and other print and online publications. Olga serves as a co-moderator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.

Photo by Maria Zilberburg