For Russians the 20th century brought war, famine and political oppression. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, images of empty supermarket shelves and grey, state-run cafeterias were beamed around the world. But that soon changed. Two decades later, the capital’s restaurant scene resembled that of any other thriving megalopolis. The city’s middle class enjoyed oysters from the Atlantic, cheese from Italy and wines from France. Then, suddenly, much of it disappeared again.
In 2014 a number of countries imposed sanctions on Russia after it annexed Crimea, which was part of Ukraine. In August of that year, as a countermeasure, the Kremlin announced a ban of its own: an embargo on importing most types of meat, fish, dairy and vegetables from America and Europe. Sergey Nosov, a veteran chef in Moscow, says that a whole range of ingredients, “disappeared in one hour. That’s it, alternatives didn’t exist.”
Among the many imported foodstuffs that Russians had grown accustomed to eating – including pork from Ukraine and apples from Poland – one of the most popular was mozzarella, an unripened, soft, chewy cheese that originally comes from Italy. Mozzarella was immediately greeted as a welcome addition to traditional Russian cuisine, reminiscent of tvorog, a soft, spreadable cheese, and sulguni, a spongy cheese with a salty bite that melts well.
Although there were already a few pizzerias in the Soviet Union, when the first Pizza Hut opened in 1990,it marked the moment when mozzarella was introduced to the masses. International food like pizza and pasta became as commonplace as borscht and blinis. Soon there were pizzerias by the Urals and caprese salads in Siberia.
Before sanctions, a strong rouble and open trade with Europe made it cheap to import mozzarella from the Czech Republic, Finland and Poland. Only high-end restaurants and grocers carried Italian-made varieties. Several large-scale Russian dairy producers turned to making their own, but most of it was bland and elastic rather than deliciously milky.
In 2014 that began to change. It was tricky to replicate pricey cheeses such as Parmesan, an aged, hard cheese that takes time to ripen. (The odds are that the Parmesan grated over your pasta at an Italian restaurant in Moscow came into the country through the quasi-legal grey market, in a suitcase, and formally meant for “personal use”.) But mozzarella is easier to make: heated fresh milk with a dash of rennet, an enzyme found in cows’ stomachs, is moulded into warm, tender clumps.
One couple, Tata Chinchaladze, a cheerful gourmand with Georgian roots, and her Italian-born husband Donato Parisi, had been importing seven tonnes of speciality food, which included fresh cheeses, twice a week, until 2014. After their imports became contraband, they had dinner in Milan with an executive from Globus Gourmet, an upmarket Russian supermarket chain. A plan was hatched: why not make their own? Parisi comes from a small town in Campania, a part of southern Italy renowned for its mozzarella, and knew some experienced cheesemakers. Globus Gourmet had a dedicated refrigerated cheese room that was now empty. They could set up shop there.
Others did the same. Kirill Sharshukov, a food importer, feared his business would collapse after the sudden implementation of the food embargo in 2014. “Stores were telling me their shelves were going empty,” he said. Two years later he founded DolceLatte, a cheesemaker based in Lubertsy, a suburb of Moscow. Sharshukov had tools and equipment built to order for his factory, all based on Italian specifications. Other chefs, food distributors and business-people also started to produce their own cheese. A new industry was born.
The biggest challenge for Russia’s startup mozzarella-makers was milk. Although the country is a mighty dairy producer, most of its milk isn’t the naturally fatty type that makes good mozzarella. So cheesemakers had to hunt around. After experimenting with milk from a number of dairy farms, Parisi found a suitable supplier outside Moscow where the cold temperatures mean cows drink less water, leading to fattier, tastier milk. The balance of protein and fat also had to be right, and the supply needed to be regular and plentiful.
In Italy most local dairies and supermarkets make up to 30kg of mozzarella by hand each day. But Chinchaladze and Parisi now produce several hundred kilograms per day at Altagamma Food. These days, Russian-made mozzarella is produced by industrial behemoths and artisanal operations alike, and sales are growing fast. More local chefs and caterers are confident that Russian mozzarella is plentiful enough to use in their dishes. And mozzarella is increasingly influencing traditional Russian cuisine. Not long ago Parisi tried the chef’s latest creation at a Moscow restaurant his firm supplies: sturgeon, a notable Russian staple, with burrata.
Over lunch one afternoon recently, Sharshukov and I shared a lump of mozzarella the size of a tennis ball, freshly made a few feet away. It yielded to my fork with a dewy sponginess and tasted bright and grassy. The plump, juicy cheese, with its balance of creaminess and bite, reminded me of eating on a sun-drenched Roman piazza. “The embargo is, of course, a good thing for me personally,” said Sharshukov, who reckons his produce now rivals the finest in Italy. “Even without closed borders, I’d like to think my mozzarella could win in a fair fight.”•