Russia's Chefs Are Learning to Live Without Oysters
It's been four months since Russia imposed sanctions on food imports from the EU and other Western nations, and in the meantime chefs have been forced to content with higher prices, substitutions, and even seafood from landlocked countries.
Photo via Flickr user Marx Foods
It has been four months since Russia imposed sanctions on certain food imports from the European Union, Norway, the United States, Canada, and Australia. The ban conveniently excludes alcohol, but includes all dairy products, poultry, pork, beef, vegetables, fruits, fish, and nuts.
The Federal Customs Service reports that, in 2013, 40 percent of fish and seafood products in Russia came from Norway alone; 42.6 percent of dairy products and 31.5 percent of its meat came from the EU. Those are some big numbers to fill.
So, how have restaurants in Russia adapted?
Together with Alexei Zimin, Semen Krymov is the co-owner of Ragout. With two locations and a bar, this popular restaurant uses French techniques to serve French dishes with a Russian twist (think beetroot and rye bread ice cream).
When asked how much of an influence the sanctions have had, Krymov answers: "Too many."
The ingredients aren't necessarily the problem—the prices are. "Because of the embargo, there is a shortage, and the alternative products have become expensive, too. That's the market law— the prices are 20 to 30 percent higher." This means that Ragout has had to increase the price of some of their dishes by about 10 to 15 percent.
"I dropped some dishes from the menu, where the products have became too expensive, like foie gras. I changed the cheese plate to use local farm cheeses like chèvre. The duck breast from Singapore [became too expensive]. I've substituted with local Rostov duck."
Despite these changes, Krymov maintains that the sanctions haven't affected the menu at Ragout too much. "We use alternative products, but need some time to understand the different quality. It's not better or worse, it's just different."
This has become an act of juggling.
"We need a balance in the menu between the quality and the price of product. And the price for customers."
The good news is that there aren't any ingredients that Ragout hasn't been able to source. "You can get anything you want, but the price stops you. You can always use routes through Belarus or Kazakhstan."
Those two countries offer a back door. Since neither has any import bans in place, certain foods are traveling through them and picking up new labels—such as Belarusian mussels. Not bad for a landlocked country.
Ragout is trying to use local meat in addition to fish from Turkey and some vegetables and greens from Israel. "But mostly local," Krymov tells me. "It's enough for daily usage."
He says that it has been possible to replace most of the imports with Russian products, "except oysters."
Moscow's Oyster Bar has temporarily changed its name to No Oyster Bar, but as Where Moscow reports, the oysters that do make it to Russian tables these days come from North Africa (mostly Tunisia).
The Economist reports that Russia imports roughly 40 percent of its food. What long-term changes these import bans have on export dependency and domestic agricultural remain to be seen. But for now, their largest effect has been on prices.
"I think the embargo is absolutely useless. It destroys the cafe and product market. Nobody can build anything good enough or large enough during the embargo. I hope it ends soon," Krymov says.
The sanctions, however, did not stop the New York burger joint Shake Shack from opening a second location in Moscow in October. (The first opened in December 2013.) But the sanctions have also affected their supply chain. "Our first issue was meat," a Shake Shack Russia representative tells me.
"Luckily, we had Australian Angus beef already imported, and luckily South America raises Black Angus cows. So this issue is solved. Actually, the biggest problem was to convince customers that we are still serving premium-quality Black Angus beef."
The other problem is the exchange rate. "It is challenging to keep prices low with constantly growing costs."
"There were also some problems with vegetables," the representative says. "Salad was the worst. It is good for only three days, so in three days we managed to find only one supplier whose salad quality meets all of the strict Shake Shack requirements."
The sanctions could, however, help to spread the gospel of the local food movement, one that Boris Akimov has been promoting in Russia since 2009 when he founded LavkaLavka. (Lavka is Russian for "shop.")
LavkaLavka—an organic food cooperative that has set up shop in both Moscow and Saint Petersburg—is Russia's leading protagonist in the farm-to-table movement. It organizes agro-tours of farms and hangs rock star-like headshots of the farmers it works with in its shops. Even the LavkaLavka email signature rallies this mission: Support Your Local Farmer!
Although LavkaLavka works with "organic" farmers, who makes the cut is its own decision. There is not yet organic food certification in Russia, but the government plans to introduce regulation in 2015.
Because of Russia's history of forced collective farming during the Soviet era, for a long time "cooperative" has been a bit of a scary word. The demands of the sanctions could be helping to change that.
"We see a lot of people right now who are interested more and more in organic farming and organic products," Akimov tells me. "After the sanctions were imposed, a lot of people in the business, who trade food or who work for the state, have been coming to us and are interested in our cooperative, LavkaLavka. They are asking what we're doing and what we plan to do."
"I think that if we talk about LavkaLavka, or similar businesses, sanctions are kind of a good thing because it is a way to protect local farmers. Maybe it is better to protect them without sanctions, but the sanctions give farmers a chance to develop their farms," Akimov says. "They give farmers a chance to make more products. But if sanctions are disabled in the future, a lot of people will understand that it is important to let farmers develop, especially organic ones. I hope so."
When I ask Akimov if the farmers can produce more for the current demand, he answers: "They can produce more, but not fast enough, of course. They need time to do it. Some of them several months. Some of them even one or two years."
Time is the big issue. With the import bans having been put in place for only a period of one year, the question is, "What next?"