In the question and answer session that followed President Putin’s speech to the annual Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Sochi last week, Vladimir Vladimirovich said he was thankful to the European Union for imposing sanctions on Russia in 2014, because Russia’s counter-sanctions, banning food imports from the EU, resulted in an enormous boost to its agricultural industry. Russian farming coped magnificently with the challenge. Putin mentioned the $25 billion in agricultural exports that Russia booked in the last year and he went on to thank Russia’s workers in the sector who made this possible.
These remarks would suggest to both laymen and experts in the West the emergence of Russia as the world’s number one exporter of wheat and its leading position as global exporter of other grains. As we know, investments in industrialized farming by Russia’s oligarchs and agricultural industry giants have paid off in higher crop yields and insured their production volumes against weather imposed damage through farming in multiple regions. Moving beyond the traditional production centers in the ‘black soil’ belt of the south, Russian grain farmers have made excellent use of previously under or ill-used acreage in Western Siberia and elsewhere. Thus, when Canada or the United States have stumbled in wheat production from one season to another, Russia has carried on to new heights. Investments in grain storage and port facilities have made it possible to use the new surpluses to best advantage on world markets.
However, what Western readers know little or nothing about is how Russia’s agricultural sector has expanded into all food niches of the home consumer market during these years, so that supermarket shelves are now filled with a great variety of domestically grown fresh foodstuffs that rival the best and most sophisticated products Western Europe has to offer . This is something you will not find detailed in official statistics, and it is certainly not carried by mainstream Western media, whose only interest is denigration of Russia, serving propagandistic and not informational purposes. Nor is it covered by the Western ‘alternative media,’ who do not send journalists to visit Russia and least of all to report on what they see in the food stores.
I will discuss the changes in food supply below based on my latest, ongoing visit to St Petersburg. However, my eye has been focused on the subject now from the very start of the Western sanctions and Russian counter-measures in 2014. I was surely the first Western observer to write about what the Russian farmers’ markets and supermarkets had on offer then and I have refreshed my information during periodic visits to Russia ever since.
The collapse of international travel since the onset of the Covid pandemic has meant that the numbers of foreign visitors who can do what I have been doing have been cut to nearly nil. Even at present tourist visas are not being issued and apart from family members of Russian citizens, the visa category I enjoy, only a relatively small number of businessmen and other professionals arrive on narrowly defined missions.
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In keeping with the title above, let us begin with ‘greens,’ by which I mean salads and vegetables more broadly.
In the bad old days of the Soviet Union, this category of produce was almost non-existent. Traditional Russian cuisine featured ‘salads’ among the first course appetizers. But what was meant was potato salad of one variety or another, including the highly esteemed ‘salad Olivier’ named after a French chef in Moscow at the turn of the last century; this has chicken or meat chunks added to diced cooked potato and mayonnaise. Lettuce and other greens simply had no place in the Russian diet. This is not to say that there were no officials-dieticians preparing to change that reality. In 1979, at the invitation of the Ministry of Agriculture of the USSR, I accompanied executives from Castle & Cooke, the Hawaii based company that was then the world’s largest grower of iceburg lettuce, on a mission to set up such production in Russia’s south. That mission failed in the faltering days of détente.
Iceburg lettuce as well as other greens appeared on sale in Russia only in the mid-1990s when millions of citizens of the now free Russian Federation traveled the world and picked up new dietary habits including a high appreciation of green salads. At the time, all of these new delicacies for the arbiters of taste in the country and those with deep pockets were imported from Western Europe and sold at European prices.
Over time, early in the new millennium, the assortment of vegetables and fruits imported into Russia expanded quickly, in keeping with rising living standards and differentiated tastes of various demographic groups. After the ban on European imports was imposed, a geometric progression in the variety and quality of Russian grown greens set in. Now when you visit even ‘economy category’ supermarket chains in the cities or in their branches in the countryside, you find on offer leaf lettuce in transparent wrap sitting atop the little plastic pots in which they were raised in greenhouses; or cut lettuce packed in plastic bags and given long shelf life by their protective atmosphere. In higher category supermarkets for the middle and upper classes, there are mixed young shoots of beets and other highly fashionable salad components in protective atmosphere; or stalk green celery, a product until recently imported from Israel. Then there are extraordinary quality small cucumbers and tomatoes from various seed varieties produced in greenhouses year round.
The traditional Russian accompaniments to soups and main courses such as dill and green scallions are also now farmed locally year round and portion-packed in plastic.
By its nature, much of the new perishable produce is grown in greenhouse complexes on the outskirts of urban areas. Other items, like the aforementioned celery, are grown in one location, Kursk in the given example, to provide for the entire nationwide market.
All of the above assumes enormous investments in greenhouse capacity these past few years, as well as the import of seeds and know-how. Presumably, The Netherlands, which is Europe’s leader in many categories of greenhouse produce, has been Russia’s partner in these developments. Russia’s own inputs are essential to the economic success of the new produce: it has very cheap natural gas to heat the greenhouses and cheap electricity for lighting. It is no wonder then that the supermarket price for the produce I have described is several times below what you see in Western Europe.
Of course, not everything on the green grocer’s shelves is presently grown in Russia and there are imports to fill out the assortment: items like avocados and kiwis. However, considering Russia’s vast territory that cuts across several climatic belts, one may expect over time to see many such items also filled by local producers.
Beef and Pork
In the ‘bad old days’ of the USSR, there were chronic meat shortages due to a variety of failures in the food chain, including disastrous grain harvests. I knew the situation and its causes from the inside having in the late 1970s assisted a couple of U.S soy producers promote their meat extenders to the Meat and Dairy Industry. Lest anyone raise a critical objection about soy, I note that soy isolates or concentrates would have been far preferable to the potato or pea starch and similar that was then going into Russian sausages. As for fresh beef, it was not highly appreciated by consumers and for good reason. When available, it was tough and sinewy. Moreover, the butchers did not do their work with much professionalism, and what you got over the counter for the single official price per kilogram could just as easily be the worst cuts as it could be choice cuts. Pork was by nature more edible, commanded greater consumer demand and was more expensive than beef, an unnatural inversion of pricing.
In the 1990s Russian meat production collapsed, and what meat there was imported. This even extended to the least demanding meat sector in terms of return on capital, poultry.
Domestic beef and pork returned to life early in the new millennium though quality was generally poor and visits to the butchers’ stalls in farmer’s markets could turn anyone into a vegetarian, conditions were so medieval. However, in the last several years the situation has changed beyond recognition. First, at about 2018 premium restaurants began offering on their menus “marbleized” beef from grain fed cattle coming from the center of the country, in Kaluga and a few other production sites. Prize bulls were brought in from Japan and other countries to create admirable herds of beef cattle.
The beef industry moved on from its modest debut in luxury restaurants to enjoy in the past couple of years a major presence on supermarket shelves. Big corporations took the lead. One, in particular, Miratorg, achieved full vertical integration, from production of cattle feed through raising beef herds to slaughter, packaging and distribution. Its high quality ‘pepper steaks,’ ‘minute steaks’ and premium cuts, as well as ground meat and other meat culinary products sealed in special atmosphere plastic packaging have long shelf life and an appealing appearance. Consumer demand is generated by active television advertising.
A similar development has taken place in pork, where there are numerous competing producers. Their packs of pork chops and other cuts clearly state energy value, fat and protein content. This transparency is surely attributable to the producers’ confidence in their quality and pricing. By contrast, the vast array of sausage products on the Russian market have made it very difficult to read nutritional values which, if not disguised, would put the consumer off, given the 30 or 40% fat content of so many.
Whereas in Belgium and elsewhere in W. Europe the accent is on grass fed beef, which summons up images of calm meadows but yields rather tough meat on the plate, the Russians have chosen the American way: grain fed beef (250 days) and pork, placing a premium on tenderness.
Chickens were no friends of Soviet agriculture. They had a hard life and were not treated well after their demise, so that the black and blue marks on their carcasses in shops did not raise optimistic expectations about the cooked product. In the years immediately after the crash of the Soviet Union, local production ended and what poultry you found in shops was nearly entirely imported from America, the popularly dubbed “Bush legs,” named for the American president under whom the imports began.
Domestically raised chickens returned to Russian stores in the new millennium, but the poultry industry only became wholly modern in the last few years. Now you find exactly the same product assortments as in Western Europe: eviscerated, whole chilled chickens or, chicken parts, meaning breast meat, legs, quarters weight portioned in plastic packaging.
Ducks, quails and similar are to be found in farmers’ market and in specialty premium level food stores. Some items are strictly seasonal, like turkey.
What is missing, strangely, from the offering is game. Here alone one can speak of a step in reverse from what prevailed in Soviet days. In the 1970’s even common food stores offered frozen partridges (feathers and all) coming from Siberia. Today there is nothing of the sort in the retail trade, although premium restaurants in major cities may have wild fowl and ‘exotic’ native game like bear or venison on their menus.
Going back to 2014, I commented on the fast growing trade in fresh fish that was reaching out from the capitals to the Russian countryside. I mentioned the new aquaculture industry in Karelia, producing wonderful salmon trout and fish farms in the Lower Volga producing starlet sturgeon that was being sold across the country. Then there were the choice flounder being shipped fresh to European Russia from the Murmansk region in the Far North. Now, very recently I note the expanding variety of luxury frutti di mare coming from Vladivostok and Sakhalin. My neighborhood Perekryostok supermarket is selling small whole calamari from the Russian Far East. More exclusive supermarkets offer mussels from the Far East and oysters grown in the Crimea. All of these delicacies are priced two to three times lower than in Western Europe.
Interestingly a similar price differential applies to several farmed Mediterranean fish that Russia is buying from Cyprus, which is not on Russia’s prohibited list, while Western Europe sources them in Greece. I have in mind sea bass and sea bream (daurade). By contrast, fresh farmed salmon bought in by Russia from Iceland is sold at only a modest discount to the banned Norwegian alternative. However, wild Baltic salmon, a seasonal Russia-sourced delicacy that is now in the markets is priced at a fraction of its cost in Western Europe, if you can find any there.
Though I have focused in the foregoing on fresh fish, the strong trend to resuscitation of long forgotten Russian smoked and cured fishes from the country’s interior has developed at a gallop in the last few years. These high priced delicacies are mostly sold through farmers’ markets or specialty stores. I think in particular of omul’ coming from the Baikal region, though there are many others. We may expect to see a lot more of this in future, replacing in part the now almost defunct trade in wild Caspian sturgeon that in Western Europe was synonymous with Russian extravagance during Soviet days.
Much lower in price though still much beloved in Russia, smoked Baltic sprats are one more example of Russia rising from its knees in food production since 2014 and the sanctions. The product was in the past produced and sold to Russia only by Riga fisheries-canners. When those sales were prohibited by the counter-sanctions, Russian producers stepped in. Their first offerings were pitiful, and it was puzzling why the know-how seemed to be beyond the reach of Russian factories. However, with time has come success. I opened a premium quality glass jar of these little fish a couple of days ago and was pleased to note their conformity to the best Latvian traditions. The label of this “Captain of Tastes” product showed proudly the medallion recording its award as a winner of “import substitution.”
Russia is a hard spirits country, as we all know. That was certainly true in the late 1990s when I was working in Moscow and promoting Absolut vodka and Smirnoff on behalf of my employers.
But even such givens are subject to change and have been changing since Russia came of age in the new millennium. Wines moved on from being a women’s drink to the status of a sophisticated beverage for all adults. Early in the new millennium, sweet wines were gradually replaced on store shelves by dry wines coming not only from France, Spain and Italy, the Continent’s biggest producers, but also from California, Argentina, South Africa, Australia. These wines continue to be sold in Russia, but are being squeezed by much larger assortments of Russia’s own burgeoning wine industry.
Until several years ago, Russian wines were an expression of patriotic wishes and not much more. The few market entries of wannabe quality Russian wine about five years ago started out well. These were from the Taman Peninsula along the Black Sea Coast of Krasnodar Region, just across the Straits from Crimea. But supply could not keep up with demand and the product was falsified, becoming inferior and in sharp discrepancy with its high pricing.
That initial failure has been corrected. Now when you visit premium wine stores or even the wine shelves of the better supermarket chains you find dry red and white wines from Taman and from Crimea which are serious and command respect. The only caveat is that the price/quality ratio compared to French wines, for example, does not favor the Russian bottle. That is not uncommon in countries that do not have a long existing tradition as wine producers. The consumer is buying pride and not just the beverage.
Meanwhile in the past couple of years the Russian industrial association of wine producers, led by Dmitri Kiselyov, has been very active working with the federal government and Duma to enact strict regulations on wine production and imports so as to ensure quality and reassure consumers. Kiselyov happens to be not only the owner of vineyards in Crimea but also the country’s director of state television news reporting. That this defender of Russia’s reputation and national interests is leading the prestigious end of the food industry is fitting.
In conclusion, I invite all skeptics about having a good meal in Russia based on local ingredients to make the trip here when the borders open and to see for themselves how and why I am for the moment enjoying every trip to my neighborhood supermarket.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021