When my abroad program took me to Saint Petersburg last fall to study eastern European literature, I was surprised by two things. First, Russian street style looks like it came straight out of a Foot Locker catalogue. Secondly, cheese was harder to come by than I had expected, even for Russia. Of course, my trip to Russia completely coincided with Russia’s international import ban on food. However, things might finally be looking up for Russian cheese enthusiasts as the import ban closes in on its first birthday.
When Russia was hit with Western sanctions over the Ukraine crisis, Moscow retaliated by banning European cheese and other agricultural products. Instead of lying down quietly and accepting their cheese-deprived fate, Russian cheese-lovers began to trade in an underground black market of sorts, doing whatever possible to get a bite of the international cheeses they had taken for granted. The Belarusian cheese trade was still allowed, since it was a former satellite nation of the former Soviet Union, but—as was to be expected—people weren’t exactly jazzed over getting their Brie from Belarus. I mean let’s be honest: that’s like telling a kid that they can only have sugar-free candy and expecting a hug.
Consequently, Russian cheesemakers have stepped up their game. In the past year, The New York Times reports, local farms produced up to 140 pounds of goat cheese a day, selling them for as much as $14 a pound. Russian dairy farms have begun to step up, trying to keep previously imported cheese such as ricotta and mozzarella as local as possible in order to satisfy Russia’s cheese demand. In fact, the federal state statistical agency recently reported that even as the Russian economy continues to shrink, the volume of cheese and curd production was up 16 percent in the first quarter compared to last year.
Although there has been recent growth in the Russian cheese sphere, there are still hurdles that must be jumped in order for Russian cheesemongers and cheesemakers to truly thrive. With banks still constrained by the ban, interest rates on small business loans are running at 20 percent and higher. Without proper financing, Russian farms may not be able to expand their operations—the Russian cheese renaissance could hit a wall. For now, however, things are still on the up for cheese-lovers in Russia. Whether it’s because dairy farms are thriving or because they don’t have to eat Belarusian Brie anymore, the world may never know.