I find Vladimir Putin annoying at the best of times, but this month my distaste has blossomed into unbridled loathing. By imposing sanctions on food imports from the United States, European Union, Canada and Japan, Russia’s kefir-drinking head of state scuppered my chances of making a decent plate of cacio i pepe or a batch of brownies for the next calendar year. The specter of Soviet-era scarcity is already making itself felt in eerie ways in supermarkets all over Moscow.
An entire section of the once expansive dairy aisle at one market is empty and shuttered with a sign citing “technical difficulties” where once Irish butter, French creme fraiche and Finnish skim milk stood proudly alongside Russian sour cream, kefir and milk. The Indian host of a sushi restaurant in my neighborhood, hugely popular with Japanese businessmen and diplomats, shook his head in despair, as he relies heavily on fish imports from Norway for his delectable sashimi and sushi. Heading back to Moscow from Italy yesterday, I loaded up my suitcase with 10 pounds of parmesan, vacuum-packed smoked ham and elegant jars of sage, rosemary, basil and mushroom pesto. Less than a week ago, they were all available at select grocery stores and wholesalers. Now, everyone is scrambling.
“Uh…uh..agh…aghhhhhhhh….?” was all my buddy, Michelle, who is a chef at the American Embassy, could spurt when she heard the news. She couldn’t stop long to chat; she was on her way to loop through all the upscale supermarkets to stockpile the Belgian baking chocolate she relies upon to make her legendary cakes and cookies.
With the food ban, Putin has also hammered the final nail into my professional coffin. I write about two things: humor and food in Russia. 2014 hasn’t been a bumper year for humor in Russia, and now the foodie story is all but pipped at the post.
And I was on a roll with the food story. I pen a blog called “The Moscovore: Culinary Adventures in the Russian Capital,” which gives me the best excuse in the world to spend the summer determinedly sampling all the cocktails on offer in Moscow’s tony eateries and call it “research.” I wrote articles for magazines about the rise of the “Federal” movement in Russian cuisine, detailing the very pleasing trend of hipster Russian chefs throwing off the yoke of Soviet-era stodgy fare, looking instead to pre-Revolutionary recipes for inspiration, updating them with new flavors and textures from the abundant international foodstuffs on offer in Russia. I led walking tours of Moscow’s farmers’ markets, initiating newly arrived expatriates into the secret kiosks selling Italian buffalo mozzarella and French fondant icing. I was actually playing with the idea of writing a cookbook …
So now what? When I moved to Moscow in 1993 to set up housekeeping with my HRH (my “horrible Russian husband”) there was hardly any imported food in Russia at all, and what there was was hard to get and prohibitively expensive. I spent a lot of my time foraging around markets and grim food stores for fresh fruits and vegetables, along with quality meat and poultry. The best thing there was were American chicken legs and thighs, nicknamed “Bush legs,” and I get the sense that this time around, they won’t be on the menu.
The 20 years I have lived in Russia have seen sweeping socioeconomic and political changes in the country, but for me the milestones have all been culinary: The day I first spotted fresh ginger in a tacky Turkish grocery store or the year the Azeri woman at Leningradsky Market first produced green basil. Until last week, the progress was always linear: As I became a more confident and creative cook, Russia kept pace, with more and more international foodstuffs available to satisfy ever more cosmopolitan and global palates.
With a stroke of a pen, Putin has turned the foodie clock back two decades.
Russians believe that August is an accursed month, bringing with it unforeseen disasters, such as the tragic sinking of the submarine Kursk, and the death of its 188 sailors, the 1998 financial crisis and the 2008 invasion of Georgia. August regularly serves up wars, floods and forest fires. For expat and Russian foodies like me, this year’s disaster is unquestionably privation, and we are heading back to Russia with suitcases full of banned products. The rah-rah Russia types stoutly declare that French brie or Polish apples are a small price to pay for the glory of the annexation of Crimea.
“We will live on buckwheat and potatoes!” they shout.
Let them. I want my sushi back.
PHOTO: A sign tells shoppers that imported dairy items are unavailable for “technical reasons” in a Moscow supermarket in mid-August 2014. Jennifer Eremeeva/ For REUTERS