Russian Cheese Market Still Expanding after Four Years of Putin’s Food Ban

Cheese with raclette in ripening cellar

Russia’s cheese-making industry has come since President Vladimir Putin banned Western food imports in 2014 in a tit-for-tat measure over the Ukraine crisis, AFP writes.

Many Russians had developed a taste for French and Italian cheeses prior to sanctions, and Moscow seized the opportunity to put in place an “import substitution” strategy, the news agency notes. This supported local entrepreneurs trying to set up businesses to replace imported goods.

Elvira Kovtun made her first cheese in a pot in her kitchen four years ago. Kovtun, a housewife and mostly self-taught cheesemaker, became so good that she and her husband decided to turn her passion into a business.

Last month, the high-school sweethearts and parents of three became the first Russians to win a gold prize at the World Cheese Awards, with their “Peshernyi” hard cheese taking the honour at the industry’s equivalent of the Oscars.

“I didn’t think this was possible,” Elvira’s husband, Vyacheslav Kovtun, said at their small creamery in the industrial town of Korolyov, outside Moscow. “Now I believe in everything.”

The results of the import substitution policy were often mixed, however, with many customers complaining of the higher price and often inferior quality of the Russian-made products.

But dairy farming and cheese-making have become a bright spot, AFP writes. According to Russia’s National Association of Dailry Producers, production of cheese and cheese products grew by a third to 670,000 tons a year between 2013 and last year.

Last week Putin confessed he was “somewhat worried” when the first punitive measures were introduced, but the events of the past few years proved that the sanctions had worked to “our economy’s advantage”.

Hundreds of artisanal creameries have cropped up across the country and some, like the Kovtuns, are winning top marks from international critics, AFP writes.

One of the people who has most championed the Kovtuns is their competitor Oleg Sirota, arguably Russia’s best-known cheesemaker.

“The more good creameries we have, the more people will trust us,” said the 31-year-old head of the Union of Russian Cheesemakers.