- Stores again offer all the Italian, French and Swiss cheezes but now they're made in Russia
- Moreover Russia's organic farmers are plotting a comeback for the half-forgotten traditional Russian cheezes
This article originally appeared in The Guardian
Feta from Vologda and camembert from Krasnodar are on the shelves, but sustainability is not key for big producers. Could the emergence of local, organic producers teach the sector some lessons?
A year after Russia banned the import of dairy, meat and fish products from European and other western nations in response to sanctions against it over its actions in Ukraine, a wide array of cheeses is back on store shelves. Shoppers can expect to find the usual variety, but may be surprised to see mozzarella from Tver, feta from Vologda and camembert from Krasnodar.
Russia swoops on gang importing £19m of banned cheese from abroad
The negative impact of the sanctions is clear. Images of contraband western foodbeing incinerated in Russia have led to condemnation in a country where nearly16% of the population live below the poverty line. And the European dairy sector, which last year exported around €2.3bn (£1.7bn) worth of dairy products to the country, is starting to feel the hit. But as the government pushes for a more self-sufficient agricultural sector, and Russian cheeses come into their own, could there be positive consequences for sustainability in the cheese sector?
The rise of Russian cheese
“When sanctions were first introduced, the feeling was, ‘Thank goodness, a breather’,” says Andrei Danilenko, chairman of Russia’s National Association of Milk Producers. “The Russian consumer has always been fussy in that basic cheeses can be produced in Russia, but real cheese has to be produced in Italy or France.”
Many cheese producers were “on the edge of survival”, he says, as the market was heavily weighed towards imports. The rouble’s devaluation in the last year has made dollar-based imports twice as expensive.
A goal of Vladimir Putin’s newly appointed agriculture minister Alexander Tkachyov, is for Russian products to replace all food imports within a decade. In the last year, cheese made in Russia has increased by almost a quarter, while imports dropped more than ninefold, from 385,000 tonnes in 2014 to 41,000 tonnes in 2015, according to analysis by the National Association of MilkProducers.
Russian supermarket chains, lacking alternatives, have come after national cheese makers saying, “Give us cheese”, says Danilenko. Large cheese makers, such as St Petersburg-based Neva Cheese, have reaped the benefits of the import ban. Neva Cheese’s Sirtaki feta is now the country’s best-selling feta brand.
Local production, with shorter supply chains over which producers have more control, can help a sector become more sustainable. But the picture is complex in Russia. The country produces only 60% of the raw milk needed for dairy products, according to Danilenko. Some Russian cheese makers have resorted to “imported dry milk, dairy proteins and unfortunately there are those who use palm oil which is not supposed to be used”, he adds.
Palm oil can be used as a cheaper alternative to dairy, and aside from its environmental impact, it is not considered an ingredient for “real” cheese.
The local organic movement
Bigger Russian businesses may be able to learn important lessons from small, local cheese producers who are seeking to promote organic produce with local ingredients from sustainable supply chains.
Giulio Zompi, an Italian restauranteur from Verona who has lived in Moscow for 12 years, makes mozzarella, ricotta and burrata for his Moscow deli. “We made a small logo, ‘Made in Russia by Italians’, as a kind of customer guarantee,” he says. And LavkaLavka, a farmers’ co-operative co-founded by Boris Akimov in 2009, aims to connect consumers with local producers and introduce the idea of organic to Russian consumers.
Akimov believes the sustainability of the Russian dairy sector depends on making smallholder goods marketable.
“Before the revolution, our food culture included a lot of dairy,” he says. “People in modern Russia know what mozzarella is but have forgotten what ryazhenka [soured, baked milk] is. There is a cheese fear among Russian farmers – we need to recover traditions.”
Six years ago, Akimov started to explore farmers’ markets, searching for “tasty, natural Russian food”. It started as a hobby, which then turned into a business that today includes a farmers’ cooperative with 200 organic farmers, five stores, a restaurant, a cafe and a vegetable box delivery business.
Russia is a haven for would-be organic farmers as land is relatively cheap and abundant, negating the need for many intensive agriculture inputs, yet to date there is no national organic certification. LavkaLavka is the first company in the country to create its own organic certification.
“We verify our farmers every year,” says Akimov. “I can’t say the system works perfectly. Some farmers ask ‘Why don’t you believe me?’ when we come to recertify them. Also, consumers don’t always understand, they think it’s just advertising. We need time to make this work.”
LavkaLavka sells camembert and chevre as well as Russian favourites such as cottage cheeses, curd and ryazhenka, traceable back to individual farmers who are profiled on the company’s website.
While LavkaLavka’s organic products are out of reach for most Russians, prices will be 30-40% lower in the farmers’ market it is opening in December in the Mega Khimki mall, one of eastern Europe’s biggest retail centres and home to many big-box retailers. “Our spirit is egalitarian, we don’t want to sell only to rich people,” Akimov says.
As a result of a drastically altered market, according to Danilenko, Russian consumers are now more willing to consider Russian-made cheeses. Local producers like LavkaLavka hope to use this new landscape to put organic, sustainable cheese on the menu.