Russian monasteries taking a pioneering role in bringing organic food to consumers

By Anneli Ahonen in Sosnovyi Bor/Halila
On the former sanatorium estate of Halila, cheese is made using methods dating back to the Middle Ages.
Orthodox Monk Gavriil is standing next to a huge bull in a cowshed, stroking its back. ”Our products and soil are pure, better than those that have been pumped full of chemicals”, he says.
The Optina Pustyn Monastery farm sprawls over a total area of 240 hectares on land belonging to the former Halila tuberculosis sanatorium on the Karelian Isthmus, between Vyborg and St. Petersburg.
The present name of the village is Sosnovyi Bor, which sounds grim, but it has nothing to do with the town called Sosnovy Bor in the Leningrad Oblast with the famous and rather rickety nuclear power plant.In fact, the Russian name Sosnovyi Bor means “pine forest” in English.
The farmers in the monastic community grow strawberries and produce milk, cheese, smetana (heavy soured cream), and quark (a kind of curd cheese), using organic methods. Neither pesticides nor artificial fertilisers are used, but the farm does not have an official organic certificate.
The potentially toxic elements in the soil have not been measured.Every so often a loud blast is heard in the distance. At the Russian army’s test site, some 30 kilometres away, some post-war munitions are being blown up in controlled explosions.
In order to attract in tourists, the farm has acquired goats, sheep, a raccoon, and 20 ostriches, the eggs of which are sold in the summer. Cows graze in an enclosed pasture next to the cowshed until the winter. In the shed, they are standing with cloth tethers around their necks.
The manure is pushed down the gutters on the floor, then thrown through a trapdoor into a machine that takes it to a slurry tank.
Manual work is accorded great worth on this farm. Milking is performed by machines, but from that point onwards, all milk processing is done manually, often in ways that have not changed much since the Middle Ages.
Master cheesemaker Maksim Parstsikov turns on a CD-player, and thumping techno and trance music starts echoing off the walls of the cheese factory, which have been decorated with icons.He takes from a cupboard a bag made of cotton gauze and containing some quark that has been strained for a day or so.
Parstsikov scoops out lumps of quark into a bowl, beginning to chop and dice the lumps.As a result, he manages to produce a proper texture that resembles cottage cheese.
The quark is then packed into small plastic boxes and sold at the farm’s own store.Milk is also used to produce cheese flavoured with parsley, dill, and other herbs, which will be ripened in large containers.
The cheese crumbles when cut, and it tastes slightly sour.
In Russia, organic food is only just finding its way to the shops and consumers.
The monasteries have seized opportunities in the emerging market, as they have all that is needed for this – land, experience in agriculture and animal husbandry dating back many centuries, free labour, and plenty of time.
Among the famous monastery products are for example cold-pressed sunflower oil and canned vegetables from the Krasnodar monasteries, as well as honey from the monasteries in Rjazan.
”Today, all manner of preservatives and food dyes are added to food, or it has a false designation of origin. The maximising of profits is endangering consumers’ health”, sighs Igumen Rostislav, the director of the Halila monastery farm.
”Here everything is on display. We have to be honest also before God, not only before people”, he continues.
The Igumen wants to make the farm self-sufficient, to run a 13-head dairy cattle operation, and to earn enough by selling groceries in order that the monastery farm could get by on its own.
In the future, the farm, which employs ex-drug addicts and alcoholics, plans to seek the status of an independent monastery.
The construction of a new church is already in full swing. In addition, the farm also has a small hotel for visitors, a sauna, an icon workshop, and a large greenhouse.
Organic groceries could be the next big thing in the largest cities in Russia.LavkaLavka – a Moscow-based enterprise producing organic food – started operations in St. Petersburg last summer.
It sells for example cheese from the farm of the Optina Pustyn Monastery.In Moscow, the number of such companies is already sizeable and growing, tapping into a market for exclusive items and with a ready customer-base among the well-to-do.
”There are various types of customers. Some of them come to pick up their food bags from the outlet, as they do not want to pay for home delivery. Some others send their chauffeur to pick up the purchases”, says Vasili Konasjonok from LavkaLavka.
”Our largest customer group consists of mothers with small children. They are concerned with the purity and natural ingredients in the food they eat and feed to their babies”, Konasjonok continues.
The certification of organic food is still in its infancy in Russia.
Production is not being monitored as it is in Finland. However, a Russian certificate for organic food does exist. For example, the Finnish dairy products manufacturer Valio has obtained such a document for the milk, quark, butter, and smetana it exports to Russia.
The certificate indicates the purity of the food. It does not intervene in questions of production conditions.
”It is still early days yet in the production of organic foodstuffs in Russia; there are no official markings and benchmarks, and the market is wild”, summarises Mika Koskinen, Valio’s director responsible for operations in Russia.”According to one opinion poll, around 10 to 15 per cent of St. Petersburg residents would be interested in organic produce. However, when asked whether they are ready to pay some 30 to 40 per cent more for organic food, the number of interested respondents falls drastically”, Koskinen observes.


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