2020, writing

The Russian Parmesan paradox: on borders, barriers and cheese


Article published in “Social Matter, Social Design: For good or bad, all design is social”, 2020, Valiz, Jan Boelen, Michael Keathler (eds.)

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Alyssa, Moscow, Russia
My family used to buy Maasdam cheese, but since the import ban it became just impossible to eat – it tastes like some really bad quality cheese that was made in Russia with added Dutch flavours. I saw a report about the Russian Parmesan on television and decided to try it since there was a vendor next to my metro station. Very good, authentic taste. A bit pricey though, I will wait until it’s on sale to buy it next time.


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Andrey, Korolev, Russia
I’ll start with the cheese rind – it is completely edible – thin, dark and aromatic. Tastes like the Russian Istra fields and meadows! The cheese has a homogenous texture, is pale yellow. It's not a sandwich cheese! It's a delicacy for a cheese platter to be combined with fruit and wine, made with love!


Varvara, Moscow, Russia
As a cheese fan I can say that all the cheeses from that farm taste the same. They claim Russian Parmesan to be a hard cheese – I wonder if they ever tried hard cheese themselves. I don’t think so! The cheese has the consistency of a regular Russian cheese and you can cut it with a regular knife. I will not buy their cheeses – different names and all the same taste.

[ Reviews of Russian Parmesan based on the review community www.otzovik.com ] 

The yearning to preserve a nation’s cultural identity might result in something so radical and literal as a concrete or steel barrier such as the Mexico–United States border wall, or it can be more nuanced and subtle (but no less radical) such as changing our everyday diet. This chapter looks at how a wheel of Russian Parmesan cheese can contribute to a new understanding of borders and the politics inherent in culture, country and trade. Sanctions imposed on and by Russia after annexing Crimea resulted in a food embargo that is in place since 2014 and is responsible for creating a paradoxical hybrid cheese, which combines the saltiness from the Mediterranean, fruity and nutty flavours from Po valley’s rich soil with the wild meadows and expansive grain fields of Russia’s agricultural heartlands. The cheese provides a taste of both Italy and Russia. In deconstructing this cheese we can begin to see how hybridity is intrinsic in food production and how international politics plays an important role in its sustaining and emergence.

Cheese is both a complex construct that communicates a country’s traditions, agricultural and artisanal practices, as well as a defining aspect of a country’s food culture and its connections to the outer world (cheese like feta, camembert or cheddar operating as branding for the countries they originate from). In this, cheese can be viewed as a design object. It is designed both in how it is reproduced as a material and an idea. Traditional processes have been re-deployed with new technologies to create similar tastes with less intensive labour that have radically altered the traditions and locations of production, while at the same time, the very notion of cheese as craft, culture and community is simplified, fictionalised and reduced for purposes of advertising and cultural branding. What ends up on our plate is the manifestation of the landscape, the farmers relation to the cattle, the artisan’s knowledge of the cheesemaking process and a lot of mythology and narratives as to its geographical and cultural origins.

Cheese is both very local and very global. We can consume, for example, Parmesan in many countries around the world but few of those places can actually produce anything that even remotely reflects the genius of the Italian version. Parmesan production is tied to climate, water, grass, species of cows as well as the specific production processes and aging. The method of cheese making is not as easy to replicate elsewhere as one might imagine in this age of reproducibility — it is tied to a series of particulars. Flavour is difficult to reproduce, as mentioned above, cheese is effected by a range of geographical factors that extend beyond the technique of production. However, texture also poses a problem. When looking at the shavings of Russian parmesan slowly melting on top of our pasta, we can see that the colour is the same pale yellow that we are used to, the flavour uniquely different (less sharp) and we can also see that it crumbles more than the properly aged Italian parmesan. The cheese was made according to a process that is a very precise copy of how cheese is made in Italian dairies: the temperature, the timing, the equipment, yet, this is far from a convincing copy.

Cheese, it appears is geography, culture and technique.  This poses some problems, such as how to buy localParmesan and in the case of Russia under a food embargo, how to support local industries while still accessing that specific taste or texture of Parmesan? In the case of Russia, the food embargo was seen as an opportunity to embrace the taste of Russianess, even if that meant Russifying other cultures’ cheeses — resulting in new hybrid entities, such as designing a Russian version of an Italian cheese. Is Parmesan made in Russia, Russian? And does it still pose a threat to what is considered to be Russian culinary culture?

When the Russian Parmesan Dairy was first opened, it was not only operating under the Russian flag, but also under the flag of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Republic (the Russian annexation of this area resulted in the sanctions which ultimately led to Russia’s import ban). It seems like a strange nationalist statement to produce Parmesan and associate it with the formation of the Donetsk Republic. Was there no local cheese that could have better communicated this specific Donetsk culture or taste? Or have our tastes grown so global that Parmesan can be a medium for Slavic regional disputes? It would surely come as a surprise to those in Emilia-Romagna to see their cheese branded with strange flags and used as propaganda for a conflict between Ukraine and Russia. 

It gets more complicated (and absurd). When the sanctions kicked-in and the import of Italian cheeses to Russia suddenly stopped, the ways in which cheese was consumed also had to change. For example, the “quattro formaggi” pizza needed to be Russified. The four cheese pizza was re-designed with the available Russian cheeses, which apart from the Rossiysky and the Sovetsky cheeses included also the Adygeisky and Suluguni. The Adygeisky cheese comes from an area that became a part of Soviet Union as a result of the Circassian genocide and the Suluguni cheese is from Georgia, whose tensions with Russia are still rising – nevertheless they are considered Russian products.  Keep in mind, these cheeses are being placed on a ‘Pizza’—a pillar of Italian cuisine. This hybrid of cultures is rebranded as Russian, a nationalistic Russian pizza. It appears that cheese is an important actor in the cause of patriotism.

While ignoring the fact that no clear line can be made where one culture begins and another ends, Russia continues its fight for culinary distinctiveness: the food embargo, which is a statement of cultural independence, isolates the country from European influences and at the same time fosters the local food culture by offering an opportunity for the country to strengthen its food production through import substitution. This creates conflicts between people who are used to a westernized cuisine and crave the taste of foreign flavours (and indirectly—places) and those who believe in the unique and isolated culinary culture of a nation and use the nativist politics to support Russian products. The former fosters a culture of unusual hybrids like Russian Parmesan and the latter attempts to isolate food along strict geographical lines making strong political claims with and through food (the history of food shows that claims of clear cultural claims on food are often spurious; there are few dishes in Russian cuisine that cannot be traced to other sources).

Our diet has developed and adjusted to the possibilities brought to us by globalization and technological development – we might not even recognize a contradiction when we find ‘Highland Brie’ on a supermarket shelf and can’t imagine our breakfast muesli without bananas, the world’s most popular fruit despite not growing anywhere near many of the its main consumer markets. Food is constantly being designed, its manufacturing processes, advertising or branding, it is an artifact that holds together technology, practice, traditions, locations and inevitably politics. At the same time, it itself designs society, being an actor that has the power to disrupt societies from the plate as a part of a daily diet. Culinary identities tend to homogenise while we are searching for distinctiveness, and we do not realise how this affects our understanding or experience of identity. Cheese emphasizes this, as a designed product that is both hyper local as well as global, deeply material as well as rooted in nostalgia, folk-culture and cultural imaginaries. By viewing it as a design artifact, we can begin to see how its design is part of broader agendas—political, economic and social. Cheese is a complex object that is consumed innocently, an agent that is at the fore of disrupting, re-enforcing and challenging local and global dynamics. Russian Parmesan might aim to be an inherently Russian product, rooted in a nationalist agenda, and despite its objective for disrupting European trade dependency, it goes on to re-enforce the notion of just how globalized are taste and desires really are.   



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