Sunday, 4 December 2011

Back to basics

With his thick beard and round belly, Boris Akimov looks more like a Russian peasant than a former music critic at Rolling Stone or Afisha and even less like the creative director of jet-setter magazine Snob.

But to his new role as Russia’s guru of locally-sourced food, this image fits perfectly. Last year Akimov ditched his high-flying jobs in the journalism world to focus all of his energies on Lavka, a Moscow fresh food movement that is sprouting up faster than mushrooms in a damp forest.

The ruddy Muscovite says he founded the movement completely unintentionally and for purely selfish motives. After years of foraging around Moscow’s under-stocked supermarkets for fresh produce, Akimov and his friends decided to start sourcing their dinner ingredients by themselves and share their experiences in a blog.

“The idea to create this network first came from a desire by my friends and I to cook and eat better quality and more diverse food and provide our families with healthy products,” Akimov said.

Partly due to Akimov’s well-established name and partly because many Muscovites shared needs for sources of fresher food, word about the site quickly spread and was soon being filled with posts from many hundreds of city dwellers.

The movement has now blossomed into a full-blown business, with 50 employees, shops in Moscow and St. Petersburg and a popular Internet delivery site.

A recent publicity campaign featured celebrities dressed as farmers and brandishing pitchforks under the slogan “support local producers.”

Akimov says the biggest challenge to the movement has been in finding farmers willing to take part in the project.

In search of real Russian farmers, Akimov and his partners first tried food markets in the Moscow region, where they had little luck.

“Many people were just sub-purchasers who bought their tomatoes from the suppliers as supermarkets, others didn’t want to take us to their production sites, others just sneered at the idea of selling via the Internet,” Akimov said.

“There were some farmers who had long been trading on the markets, and for them Rizhsky market was something of a holy cow – they just didn’t want try anything else.”

However, gradually, the friends managed to rein in the support of a small handful of farmers, whose cooperation helped to convince other farmers of the project’s potential.

Lavka currently works with around 35 different farms across the Moscow, Kaluga, Lipetsk and Tambovsk regions.

And the movement’s rather professional-looking website now even features a nifty function that picks up on a visitor’s IP address when they log in and instantly brings up a list nearby production sites and farms.

But Akimov says the expansion of the project should never deter from its key principle: ensuring that all produce is locally sourced and of a high quality.

“Before we start working with anyone, we visit them and find out about their families, their daily routines and production, even how they raise their hens or grow potatoes,” Akimov says. “We believe a consumer should be able to trace the origins of his food.”

While most of the project’s sources are farmers in the traditional sense, the list also includes a varied bunch of independent producers working in niche markets, such as U.S. cheese maker Jay Close, who has set up a production base at his home in the Moscow region.

With their project, the Lavka founders have inadvertently spearheaded Russia’s very own version of the locavor movement, which has been storming developed nations for the past few years.

Akimov, himself a great lover of food, says the Lavka project has opened his eyes to a whole world of new flavors and cuisines.

His new project has encouraged him to explore pre-revolutionary Russian cook books for forgotten recipes and scourge the Russian countryside for the ingredients of exotic foreign recipes like roast pigeon.

“On finding out more about food and the ways it’s produced we’ve learned that even our everyday products are far from what you expect them to be,” Akimov told The Moscow News. “So, along with a wider assortment the project we created is aimed at delivering healthy and organic food.”

The group is now working on expanding its range of unique Russian produce, which currently includes a European Smelt fish from the lakes near Vologda and a traditional apple marshmallow from a village in Tulskaya Oblast.

“We are searching for local gastronomic treasures from various Russian regions. I believe this is the only way to protect local life, encourage local employment, and boost tourism,” Akimov said.

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