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Spanish jamón

How Did The Self-Imposed Food Embargo Impact Russia

Last year our government decided to give an asymmetrical response to the sanctions, imposed by Western countries. Russia banned import of food from countries, which supported sanctions. French cheese, Spanish jamón, Polish apples and many other products were not allowed to enter Russia anymore.

Attitude to Food Became a “Patriotic Test”

“Patriots” or rather people, who watch A LOT of Russian TV welcomed these news. They said that we do not need a foreign mozzarella and it was never good anyway. They claimed that Europe and other countries sent us food of poor quality – that was what exactly what was told to them by the State Propaganda machine. They also said that the absence of foreign-made food would give a chance to local farmers to grow their business. And while they are working on that – we can import food from the “friendly countries”.

Happy cows

Happy cows at local lands- that is how patriots envision future. Not bad, but it takes time to grow cows

“Non-patriots” were unhappy about the sanctions. They wondered how their favorite restaurants would deal with that; they started to ask friends to bring them a piece of Parmesan or other delicacies from vacations abroad.

The rest of the world was speechless and was curious to see how the situation develops.

I must make a disclaimer here – food embargo did impact mostly high-income people, who live in Moscow and other big cities. Percentage of population, who had French Brie cheese, Spanish jamon and New Zealand beef in their diet is really small. Most people, who live in Russia, have low income and their diet is skewed towards locally grown potatoes, grains, processed food and other inexpensive options. So, I do understand why they do not care about the food embargo and are annoyed when hipsters say that they will really “suffer” without some exotic food.

Real Pros and Cons of The Food Embargo

It was indeed interesting to observe, how that situation unfolded.

First week after the announcement grocery stores noticed significant spike in sales. Russia experienced many instances of food shortages in the past, so Russians are used to stock on essential items, such as salt, buckwheat, sugar, matches etc. However, this time rush was seen mostly in the grocery stores, which sell expensive imported food. Consumers were stocking on cheese, jamon, olives, olive oil and other “luxury items”. I admit that I also bought some olive oil, just in case (btw, olive oil is still available – it was probably not included in the list of banned food).

Parmigiano reggiano

Parmigiano reggiano – now among the banned food

Cheese sommelier at work

Cheese sommelier at work

At that time food embargo became one of the most popular media topics. I remembered a story about a young entrepreneur, cheese aficionado, who used all his savings on opening a small cheese store just one month before the food embargo. I was wondering whether he had to close his business or found a way to survive and found him in social media and arranged the interview. Talking with Alexander Krupetskov was a such a pleasure, that I decided to share with you the entire interview in a follow-up post. For now, I am happy to report that Alexander is still running his business and even opened the second cheese store, started to conduct cheese master classes and his business is doing well. How he managed that? He quickly figured out that the only European cheese making country that was not subject of food embargo was Switzerland, so he focused on Swiss cheese. He also started to explore import from other countries and made deals with local manufacturers of cheese. Finally, he had some cheese in stock. In our conversation, Alexander answered so many questions about cheese, shared his thoughts about local manufacturers, told how quality of cheese depends on the quality of milk and the technological process etc. He looks into the future with a lot of optimism and I am happy to support that entrepreneurial spirit with providing link to his Cheese shop (www.chesom.ru) and addresses of his cheese stores in Moscow: Oktyabrskaya 9/1 and Kransnopresnenskaya naberezhnaya, 16/1 (Vystavochnaya metro station). I know that my Moscow readers will be happy to know where to buy good cheese.

Most of media stories though focused on the potential positive side of the food embargo – how our farmers will create better cheese and other food. Some of that could be seen indeed – but on a very limited scale. Agriculture is not something that could be built in several months or even several years. It is a “culture”, that needs decades of hard work, dedication, modern technologies, best practices and support from the government in a form of lower taxation, better laws, credits with low interest rates etc. The previous decade of high oil prices and relative stability was wasted; there was no support to the small business and very low level of support to the local business in general. There were also a lot of speculations about “grey import” from Belorussia, which did happen at some extent. “Grey import” means that products are first entering Belorussia and then documents are changed. So, you have Belorussian oysters imported into Russia (Belorussia does not have sea).

A lot of foreign FMCG (CPG – for US readers) companies did not want to lose their brands and tried to replace the foreign-made mozzarella and other products with local ones. Difference in quality was obvious. Importing food from other countries did start, but it develops slowly. I have seen reasonable prices steaks from Argentina in n (they were good), Gouda cheese from Argentina (it was average) and other “new imported food”, but it is still quite rare.

Restaurants did suffer too. It is difficult (impossible) to replace Black Angus beef with a local beef. And Moscow restaurant scene was dependent on exotic food products – chefs were competing in making their menus unique, outstanding, extravagant and exotic. I remember ordering a Thai crab salad in one of the upscale Moscow restaurants last Fall. I did order that salad before, so I noticed that it was smaller and did not include the actual salad. I asked waiter if they changed the recipe – he said – no, we just do not have all the ingredients because of the sanctions.

Restaurants are market players though. They need to adapt and compete if they want to stay in business. In general – I can see some positive trends of the food embargo in Moscow restaurants. Russian traditional dishes suddenly came in fashion. One of the most popular restaurants of 2014/2015 – Dr. Zhivago, located steps from Kremlin on the first floor of a luxury hotel National offers only Russian cuisine and waitlist to get a table is at least a week long.

Dr Zhivago table

Dr Zhivago serves traditional Russian cuisine, that is a right strategy in the times of sanctions

Also, chefs started to experiment with local ingredients and apply fusion and molecular cuisine techniques to the traditional recipes. Or, took an international recipe and replaced difficult to get ingredient with a local ones. Sometimes it leads to funny results – I still do prefer veal carpaccio to a beetroot carpaccio, but I like that chefs are becoming more creative. And, I support when restaurants work with the local farmers. It is easier for farmers to deliver limited amount of produce or dairy or meet to a restaurant, than to a retail chain. For retail they need to have a proper packaging, appealing brand and – a lot of money to pay for the place at the shelf that all retail chains charge. With the restaurants – they just need to deliver refrigerated products if the buyer agrees to buy from them.

So, What Is The Summary of All of The Above?

There is no summary – just some facts and observations. My education tells me that it is never good when government regulates the market. But it is incredibly interesting to see how things develop when government starts to do that. And it is interesting to observe such situation from several angles – economical, political, sociological, psychological, marketing.

Finally – What Surprised Me This Month

I was doing grocery shopping in one of the Moscow supermarkets the other day. And the cover of one of the culinary magazines attracted my attention with a recipe of real Argentinian empanadas inside. My Argentinian friend once taught me, how to cook empanadas, but it was a long time ago and I lost the recipe. I thought – great! I should buy that magazine and re-learn how to cook empanadas! Recipe was good – I managed to create something similar to the Argentinian pies I miss so much in between my trips to Argentina.

But the rest of the magazine was surprising! It felt as if the chief editor wanted to include the most hard to get, exotic ingredients in each and every recipe. I wonder if she even lives in Russia, or she governs the magazine from abroad.

Recipes in that magazine included such ingredients as sea scallops, octopus, mussels, artichokes, fresh mango, rare oils and sauces.

Breakfast of the Aristocrat

Breakfast of the Aristocrat – eggs with langoustines

But the real gem of that issue was called “Breakfast of the Aristocrat”. Chef of one of the posh Moscow restaurants tells how: “not just surprise, but shatter the world of your loved one with the breakfast, that deserves to be at the king’s table”. This is a breakfast dish – eggs with langoustines and truffles. Bubble caption from the chef’s photo tells us – “yes, truffles are expensive, but the cost does not matter. What really matter is to prepare this dish with love”. To give justice – recipe at the adjusting page calls for the black caviar and even some gold, but a caption from the chef says that black caviar could be replaced with red caviar or even with the olive tapenade.

And, I am not even sure if both recipes are worth an effort and cost of finding langoustines, truffles, black caviar etc.

That reminded me of a visit to a bookstore couple of weeks ago. I have seen a gorgeous book of Spanish tapas recipes. I liked the idea of learning how to make amazing tapas to surprise my friends. That book was expensive, so I asked a store clerk to open the plastic wrap and let me look inside, which he did. I haven’t bought that book as almost all recipes included super exotic ingredients.

I thought – is my reaction to that book and that magazine a result of food sanctions? That I could get langoustines and artichokes before at a grocery store “around the corner” and now I cannot do that? Or is there something else that bothers me? I think it is “something else”.

Best recipes for home cooking in any country are those, which:

  • Include local seasonal food (because it is super fresh and because you support local manufacturers)
  • Do not take many hours to cook and/or a super long list of the ingredients (because you have a busy life and cannot afford spending all day in the kitchen if that is not your profession)
  • Should not be super expensive if that could be avoided (yes, almost any dish will get better with a spoon full of black caviar. And for a special occasion, such as a wedding – why not splurge? But do you need that every day? There are just better ways to spend money)

That is a long post and it results in more questions than answers. I would love to know your attitude to local vs. international cuisine. Do you use more traditional recipes and seasonal local food when you cook at home in your countries? Or do you use a lot of imported food? How important is the availability of exotic items in your daily life? Would you share with me and with my readers’ descriptions and/or recipes of the traditional dishes from your country that you believe anybody in the world can cook at the other side of the world? And also – some descriptions of dishes that would be impossible to cook, because the ingredients are impossible to transport or they should be super fresh to be used?

Leave a Reply

  • Nina - 3 years ago

    What a timely post! When I read in the news a while back about the sanctions I was curious how it would affect people’s diets and eating habits.

    I’ve never really thought about the way I cook at home. All sorts of foods always seem to be in season or are at least available in grocery stores and farmers markets in southern California so I wouldn’t necessarily say I stick to seasonal ingredients. I do buy non-frozen, non-processed foods most of the time–chicken breast, shrimp, salmon, ground beef, fruits (apples, oranges, bananas, peaches, blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, etc.), vegetables (avocados, celery, carrots, potatoes, onions, bell peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, Italian squash, mushrooms) but for some other items I buy it canned because it takes too much time otherwise (beans, chickpeas, etc.). Of course I don’t make my own pasta–I don’t have the equipment so it’s easier to buy packaged pasta.

    One of the easiest dishes to prepare is Mexican rice with chicken, sometimes called Spanish rice with chicken. I don’t buy packaged chicken broth for this recipe anymore because it upsets my stomach so you can just use water instead. It still comes out flavorful. And if you don’t have cumin you can try any other spice that goes well with white rice. The recipe calls for canned diced tomatoes but I use fresh tomatoes. And if you want it spicy you can add paprika or even peppers I suppose.

    This recipe serves 2.

    == Ingredients ==
    1 (tablespoon) olive oil, divided (any oil is fine – canola, vegetable, etc.)
    2 (large) boneless skinless chicken breast halves
    1/2 (medium) onion, thinly sliced
    1/2 (teaspoon) ground cumin
    1/2 (cup) uncooked white rice
    1/2 (14.5 ounce) can diced tomatoes with green chilis
    7/8 (cup) chicken broth

    == Directions ==
    1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large skillet over medium high heat until hot, but not smoking. Add chicken and saute until browned, about 5 minutes each side. Remove chicken from skillet and set aside.

    2. Heat remaining 1 tablespoon oil in skillet, then add onion and saute, stirring frequently, until onion is translucent (about 5 minutes).

    3. Add rice and saute about 2 minutes, stirring, to coat the rice with the oil. Then add the reserved chicken, tomatoes with liquid, chicken broth, cumin and season with salt and pepper. Bring to a boil.

    4. Reduce heat to medium low, cover and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Serve.

  • Tanya Golubeva - 3 years ago

    Dear Nina! Thank you so much for your wonderful message! I have been to the Southern California quite a few times. Quality of food both at the restaurants and at farmers markets is amazing there! And people do eat healthy and exercise a lot! Thank you very much for sharing your recipe – I actually cooked the Mexican rice with chicken yesterday in my Moscow kitchen and loved it!!!

  • Maddie - 1 year ago

    Greetings ^_^

    I was researching about Russia’s foreign trade policies and its when I came across your post, and I must say it was such a delightful read :D Newspapers and other studies kind of just talk about how much money was lost due to the food embargo so I was getting a bit bored xD

    I’m from Hanoi, Vietnam and here we cook with locally grown, seasonal food. Vietnam can actually grow and get a wide variety of grains, vegetables, fruits, meat and seafood ourselves. Not of the best quality in the world, of course, but still satisfactory. I’m living in the capital city but here we only have a few stores specialized in imported products from Europe. They mostly sell things you occasionally need (for a special birthday or valentine’s day meal and such) at home like Italian spices, and more often than not those who shop there are foreigners who are currently residing in Hanoi. Oh and probably some restaurants too, but I think they order the stuff directly from abroad because it is much cheaper than buying from those local stores (the oligopoly game is real strong so the shops can literally set any price they wish to).

    I don’t really cook much though so really sorry that I can’t think of any recipe to put here :p Have a nice day!

    • Tanya Golubeva - 1 year ago

      Thank you so much for your warm words about my blog and sharing your story! I have never been to Vietnam, but definitely plan to travel to Hanoi and other places some day. Many of my Russian friends have traveled to Vietnam and brought back fantastic photos and great memories!