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Brie de Guerre: Russia's Cheese Politics

Wedges of Russian-made cheese fill the shelves at supermarkets in Moscow. PHOTO BY RYAN BELL

My waiter recommended the cheese plate. I was eating at LavkaLavka, the farm-to-table restaurant in Moscow that I profiled last week for The Plate. It’s your typical hipster-run establishment, with bearded waiters in t-shirts, jeans tight-rolled at the ankle, and (for most of them, anyway) tattoos poking out between hem lines.

“Delicious Russian cheese,” he said. “You will like very much.”

That was not a phrase one expects to hear in sanctions-era Russia. Ever sincePresident Putin imposed a Western food ban, the prevailing narrative has been that Russia is riled up over foreign cheese. If you’ve missed the coverage, here’s a primer:

Why has cheese become the cri de guerre for Russia’s Western food ban? Plenty of other foods have suffered, too, like Polish apples and Australian beef. For some Russians, the taste of Soviet-era cheese, renowned for its poor quality, is still a fresh memory. I bought a block at the grocery store. How should I describe it? Elastic. It bent into the shape of a horseshoe and boinged back without snapping. Cooked into a grilled cheese, it didn’t melt so much as plasticize.

The hullabaloo symbolizes a bigger rift than just variety at the grocery store. Imported cheese is a luxury good. Sure, it tastes great, but it also represents healthy trade relations with countries like Italy and France. But when the cheese is gone, the love is gone.

Speaking of good relations, I’d come to trust anything on LavkaLavka’s menu because they held producers to an exacting standard above even Russia’s own certified organic labeling (which, many say, is pretty limp). I gave the cheese plate a shot. The waiter returned with a hand-carved wooden platter mounded with cubes of cheese, nuts, and dried fruit. I speared a cube with my fork and chewed. No foul flavor, no polymere texture. For artisan cheese, it was pretty good.

Many of LavkaLavka’s producers are self-taught. They find recipes online, then watch a few how-to videos on Youtube, and after some trial and error, voila, they’re making artisan cheese (as well as sausage, ham, and beer). Internet access makes a big difference for the Russian experience of today versus past hard times. So long as the worldwide web freedom is protected, Russians can learn to make versions of products they can no longer get from abroad. And for those with an entrepreneurial spirit, the Western food ban gives them a window of opportunity to start a business.

A chef at LavkaLavka flips through recipe books to find inspiration. PHOTO BY RYAN BELL

But the situation is tenuous. The looming question is: what comes next for the Western food ban? The current version is due to expire in August 2016. If ended, imported cheese will flood the market. Could Russia's upstart cheese makers survive?

Russia may also renew the food ban. After all, it has proven a useful tool for stimulating domestic food production (although, disastrous for other businesses). But under what context would the bans be renewed? Will Russia and the West still be at loggerheads over the Ukrainian conflict? Or will the Syrian crisis have given Russia some new context for banning Western food?

In either case, renewing sanctions will link the growth of Russia’s food industry with the hardships suffered by people elsewhere. That would overshadow the sincere intentions of Russian businesses like LavkaLavka, whom were developing local cheese production long before brie was a cri de guerre.

Ryan Bellis a Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow, traveling through Russia and Kazakhstan for his project#ComradeCowboys.Follow his adventure on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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