In 2017, I went to Moscow to see the empire of Russian billionaire Arkadiy Novikov. There was a new restaurant on every corner – smelling of garlic but also paint, the air thick with money – and Novikov seemed to own all of them. It wasn’t possible, in the end, to figure out what kind of restaurateur he was, a good one or a bad one, because he just owned so many, spanning such an impossible range of cuisines, that it became a numbers game. Some of them couldn’t help but be good; others could help it.
Novikov told me about the abject poverty of his childhood, sharing one tomato with his mother and grandmother, making a cucumber last a week; and his apprenticeship, cooking soup for the dogs in the Russian army. There were bits missing from his origin story, specifically, how Russia after perestroika (the 1980s reformation movement) delivered him not a part of the restaurant scene but the majority of it, but for some reason I chose to focus my questions on how you make a soup for a dog. “Pearl barley,” he said. “The head of a pig; a few potatoes.” His culinary sensibility was marked by a hyper-masculine obsession with size, steaks as big as the plates they sat on, from Miratorg, a million-hectare (2.5m-acre) ranch. I took it as part of the pantomime; strongman politics were to Moscow what kombucha was to New York. Looking back I realise what he was actually describing, quite carefully, was the agricultural element of a steadily building fortress economy.
The EU sanctions against Russia, launched in 2014 in response to its annexation of Crimea, never included food. Instead, they were concentrated on cutting off access to capital markets, and blocking the import of tech that could be used for arms, fracking or oil exploration. Putin’s retaliatory move was to ban fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and dairy from the EU and the US, as well as Canada, Australia and Norway. By 2017, that Miratorg ranch was supplying one-fifth of all the meat in Russia.
Novikov, meanwhile, was trying to make sure the international tensions didn’t inconvenience the discerning palate, by recreating European charcuterie and cheeses. He had French and Swiss chefs holed up in cavernous factories that shone like laboratories, making chorizo, mozzarella, feta and brie, with a restaurant attached serving only cheese. Sometimes with a pizza or a salad underneath it, but basically cheese.
I didn’t give a huge amount of thought to the politics behind it, since it was a very elite market, and didn’t seem to touch the lives of the ordinary citizen. Wages and living standards were falling – this stuff was all terrifically expensive. It seemed like a frippery. I did, however, think a lot about the cheese, which made no sense. They had money, time, expertise, raw materials, and yet they couldn’t get a mozzarella to taste like mozzarella; instead, they had these hard little balls of solid texture, with nothing like that unique journey from stringy exterior to squidgy middle. The feta tasted more like Georgian cheese than anything Greek (Georgian cheese is wonderful, actually, but it’s not the same). The “brie” resembled brie only insofar as it was round. I was too polite to ask how on earth it had all gone so wrong, and arrived privately at two broad conclusions: first, that centuries of knowledge are embedded in something greater than a single cheesemaker, and no one alone can recreate them; second, that Russian cows must be wired differently.
They were the wrong broad conclusions – this was a statement of intent. It didn’t matter what the cheese tasted like to me; what mattered was the long game, which was not to wait for international reconciliation, but to forge on in glorious isolation, plugging the lifestyle gaps with play-dough, if needs be. One of the many difficult lessons of the 21st century is that you should always pay attention to how rich people are spending their money, even if it looks like nothing. If they’re eating bad cheese, never stop asking why.
Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist