Farm manager from Valaam monastery travels to Italy to learn new cheese-making techniques after Ukraine crisis led to food bans
Parmesan may be hard to come by in Moscow these days, but a remote Russian monastery is bucking the trend by producing its own exotic Italian cheeses.
Monks at the Valaam monastery, a favourite haunt of Vladimir Putin, are turning their hand to mozzarella, morlacco and smoked ricotta.
Such delicacies disappeared from shelves across Russia in August after the government introduced a ban on food imports from Western countries which imposed sanctions on Moscow over the Ukraine crisis.
Whingeing about the absence of French Brie and Parma ham is now a favourite dinner-party topic for savvy Muscovites.
The monks of Valaam have not sat idle. This week, the monastery – situated on an island in the middle of Lake Ladoga near St Petersburg – published photographs of Father Agapy, its agricultural manager, on a trip to visit cheese-makers in Italy.
The images showed the monk in his black robes and cylindrical hat posing next to equipment and tossing a white cheese in the air.
Mikhail Shishkov, a spokesman for the monastery, told The Telegraph that its abbot, Pankraty, had ordered the trip after new milk and cheese processing machines were bought for Valaam's thriving farm from an Italian company.
"Father Agapy did a course on how to make several types of Italian cheese and now he will teach the other monks and we will have our own small cheese factory," he said.
Mr Putin, Russia's president, is a frequent visitor to the Valaam monastery, which is considered a beacon of Russian Orthodoxy. Monks there have a small herd of cows, a vineyard and plots of potatoes.
The decision to make mozzarella and other Italian cheeses was not linked to the import ban, Mr Shishkov said, but any that reaches stalls near the monastery or is delivered to the mainland is likely to be eagerly snapped up. "Mostly it will go for internal use in the monks' and pilgrims' refectories but a little may be sold on the external market," he explained.
Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's prime minister, announced the one-year food ban on August 7. It prevents import of beef, pork, fruit and vegetables, poultry, fish, cheese, milk, and dairy products from the countries of the European Union, the United States, Australia, Canada and Norway.
On Thursday, Sergei Ivanov, Mr Putin's chief of staff, admitted in a newspaper interview that US and EU sanctions had done "a certain amount of damage" but he insisted that "99.9 per cent" of Russians were not bothered by the import ban imposed on US and European foodstuffs in retaliation.
The remaining 0.1 per cent could "calmly board a plane to Tallinn or Helsinki, it's not even necessary to fly to Zurich or Paris, to buy up lots of cured ham and Parmesan," he said.