Newspaper article International New York Times

What the Russians Crave: Cheese

Newspaper article International New York Times

What the Russians Crave: Cheese

Article excerpt

Consumers are finding their way around a ban on food products imported from the E.U.

Right across from Gate 21 in Heathrow's Terminal 4 -- the gate from which Aeroflot's London-Moscow flight most often departs -- sits the small shop of the Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar. One of its glass refrigerators houses a fine selection of artisanal cheeses. The shop also sells fish and, yes, caviar, but it's the cheese refrigerator that Moscow-bound passengers raid several times a day, making their last-minute purchases. You can't buy this stuff in Russia anymore.

In August it will be a year since Russia introduced a ban on the import of certain food products from the European Union and other countries that had introduced economic sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. Like the biblical pharaoh's unimaginative magicians, who responded to the plagues inflicted by the Jews' god by visiting the same disasters on Egypt's own people - - also turning fresh water to blood and covering the ground with frogs -- so Vladimir V. Putin responded to the hardships coming from the West by creating more hardship.

Some Russians miss their Australian rib-eye, others their Norwegian salmon, still others their Italian pasta, but it's cheese that most yearn for. Its absence from the dinner table is a singular symbol of the new time -- the time of Russia's war with the West.

It is cheese that Russians write home about when they go abroad. "It's my first time in Europe after all that's happened," the journalist and filmmaker Inna Denisova, a critic of the annexation of Crimea, wrote on her Facebook page in February. "And it's exceedingly emotional. And of course it's not seeing the historic churches and museums that has made me so emotional -- it's seeing cheese at the supermarket. My little Gorgonzola. My little mozzarella. My little Gruyere, chevre and Brie. I held them all in my arms -- I didn't even want to share them with the shopping cart - - and headed for the cash register." There, Ms. Denisova wrote, she started crying. She ended her post with a sort of manifesto of Europeanness and a question: "Je suis Charlie et je suis fromage. I want my normal life back -- can it be that it's gone forever?"

The Putin government, as well as some news reports, claim that the countersanctions have been a boon to Russian producers, including cheese makers. But most of what they have been able to produce is the subject of complaints and jokes. People often post photos of cheeselike objects they discover at grocery stores, and at least one St. Petersburg shop has installed tongue-in-cheek advertising of the domestic processed cheese it sells: Parodying a Vladimir Mayakovsky poem, it commands the customer to "stop whining" and "start chewing our own Russian-made cheese spread. …

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