Sanctions have a silver lining for Russian cheese producers

ISTRA, Russia (Reuters) - Russia’s ban on imported foodstuffs from the West may have caused a headache for European farmers, but it has played right into the hands of Russian cheese producers gladly filling the lucrative niche.

At a cheese fair held some 65 km (41 miles) outside Moscow last weekend, Russian versions of cheddar and feta vied for a spot on counters filled with Russian-made interpretations of brie, camembert and mature blue cheeses.

“An industry is being born right in front of our eyes. Many (farmers) started making cheese in saucepans three years ago, just like us,” Oleg Sirota, an IT specialist turned cheese maker, and a one of the organizers of the fair, told Reuters Television.

“We made our first cheese in a saucepan. Then we bought equipment produced in Russia. And now we are expecting new big vats made in Russia.

“We are very proud that we not only make cheese, but we make it using Russian equipment and machinery,” Sirota added.

Three years ago Russia’s government banned some Western foodstuffs, including most dairy products, in response to Western sanctions imposed on Moscow for its role in the Ukraine crisis.

The cheese festival, in a nod of gratitude to the positive impact of the Russian food embargo, was entitled “Three years of sanctions!”

Some food connoisseurs say the Russian cheeses are a poor substitute for their European equivalents, but people at the fair seemed impressed.

“All the types of cheese are delicious, they are very similar to the French ones, the Italian ones,” said Anna, a visitor to the fair. “So there are a lot of equivalents which are no worse than the ones I tasted abroad.”

The Russian food embargo comes at a price, however. Official statistics show that food prices have increased 1.5 times in the last three years after Russia banned imports of many European foodstuffs.

Reporting by Alexander Reshetnikov; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe and Pritha Sarkar