Brie de Guerre: Russia’s Cheese Politics

Wedges of Russian-made cheese now fill the shelves of supermarkets in Moscow.
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 since President 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 —> Read More