There’s a distinct air of egalitarianism about LavkaLavka, a Moscow cafe and farmers’ collective that connects consumers with local producers. The communal table in the centre of the cafe is used just as much by employees having their lunch as it is by paying customers. And in the spirit of things, Boris Akimov, co-founder of LavkaLavka, conducts our interview sitting at the table amid the bustle of his fellow workers and diners. In addition to the dishes on the menu, complimentary platters of raw root vegetables, pots of jam, baskets of bread, jugs of cranberry juice, and a large brass samovar of tea are scattered along the table for all to share.
Akimov, 35, a bear-like man with a thick set of whiskers and a mop of curly locks grabs handfuls of the vegetables — carrots, pumpkins, radishes — all seasonal of course, to munch on. "I know where everything you see here comes from and from which farmer," he says, as he begins to point to various foodstuffs. My poached eggs I discover are from farmer Nikolai Aldushin, based near the city of Vladimir, while the side of red caviar is from Murmansk fisherman Anton Iskandyrov. The bread, black from the coal it has been baked with, is from a bakery in Moscow. For those without Akimov by their side, the menu serves as readily available guide.
The experience recalls an episode of Portlandia, the US television show that satirises hipster culture, in which a couple ask the waitress question after question about the provenance of the chicken on the menu. They are reassured with a photo of the bird and told it is a “heritage-breed, woodland-raised chicken that’s been fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy, and hazelnuts”. Yet unlike the US, where consumers’ most minuscule of whims are catered to and food choices form a strong part of one’s identity, the provision of such granular detail is without parallel in Russia.
“There’s a person behind each product and I’m free to check and see whether it’s a product I approve of and want to buy”
Although a far cry from the levels parodied in Portlandia, what the menu at LavkaLavka underscores is a growing interest among Muscovites in the quality and origins of their ingredients. And, it’s no exaggeration to say that LavkaLavka has played a significant part in initiating this change. “They have a different mentality,” says Akimov of his customers. “Some buy from us because of health reasons, some because they have children, some because they feel a sense of responsibility and some because it’s seen as fashionable to eat organic or seasonal food.” The company’s patrons may be a varied bunch but the price tag attached to its food means they tend to be from the city’s wealthier echelons.
LavkaLavka is first a seasonal food distribution service and then a cafe. It supplies basic provisions such as chickens, eggs, honey and milk from a network of around 50 farmers to a growing number of Muscovites and a handful of restaurants. Ivan Shishkin, co-founder of Delicatessen, a Moscow restaurant that sources up to 30% of its ingredients from LavkaLavka, says he prefers the “honesty and transparency” of the produce. “There’s a person behind each product and I’m free to check and see whether it’s a product I approve of and want to buy,” he says. According to Shishkin, public demand for organic, seasonal food is still limited. “I think it’s my role and LavkaLavka’s to make more people understand where their food comes from,” he says. “Most of my customers don’t care but it takes time to change attitudes.” For its part, LavkaLavka organises agritours to member farms as well as other food-related events, such as a monthly farmers’ show-and-tell for children and regular lectures by celebrated Russian food writer Maksim Syrnikov; all are designed to encourage consumers to think about the food they eat and where it comes from.
LavkaLavka takes an equally conscientious approach when selecting its farmers, admitting only those who meet its strict criteria into its circle. Farmers must, for instance, observe good animal welfare practices and broadly speaking, be “organic” (Russia does not yet have a certified labelling scheme for food produced organically, giving rise to fast and loose definitions). “They have opened a market for us that did not exist before,” says John Kopiski, a dairy and beef farmer who is in the process of joining the LavkaLavka family as a supplier of bottled milk, yoghurt and cheese. “To develop an image and product in any market takes time and resources and LavkaLavka have invested in this part of the market. A farmer that has a partner that provides market knowledge can assist the farmer to develop.”
Akimov did not originally set out to help small- to medium-sized farmers establish themselves or to introduce the concept of virtuous food to Muscovites. When he launched LavkaLavka (lavka means shop in Russian) with his business partner Alexander Mikhail, 37, in 2009, the two cooking enthusiasts (and former members of industrial avant-garde band Inquisitorum) were simply after high-quality ingredients. The company’s first incarnation was a no-frills page on LiveJournal, a popular blogging platform in Russia. The message on the page was simple: “We’re buying geese and butter from these farmers. Do you want some?” “The idea was really just to feed ourselves,” says Akimov, who was working as a journalist at the time, a career he embarked on at the age of 19.
“You don't see people in the middle of Russia. Our idea is that people from the cities should move back”
As LavkaLavka’s reputation grew, so did its customer base and in 2010, it moved to its current spot in the Arma factory complex, an old gasworks behind Kursky station. Along the way, its purpose has progressively evolved into something loftier. The assistance it provides farmers now is part of a wider agenda to change prevailing attitudes towards farming. “It’s not like in Europe or in the US where farmers are respected,” he says. “In Russia, they’re considered to be peasants who are trying to move to Moscow but can’t. We want to change that thinking and make farming a respected profession.”
Baked pike-perch in a white wine sauce
This kind of thinking can be traced back to the agricultural policy of the early Soviet era when peasants were bundled into collective farms in an attempt to boost efficiency. The result was enmity towards the state among farmers, whose movements were severely restricted, and a succession of famines. It wasn’t until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that forced collectivisation ended, bringing with it rural flight and years of agricultural decline. The industry has since picked up, but undoing years of Soviet mismanagement has been a painfully slow process. According to the World Food Programme, Russia has more fertile yet fallow land than anywhere else in the world. The upshot is that Russia is a net importer of food, including beef, pork, chicken and cheese. “In terms of farming, around 70% to 80% of all our vegetables come from other countries,” says Akimov. “There’s lots of land. We have this huge territory but we don’t use it.”
For Akimov, reversing the migratory trends of the past two decades by inspiring a generation of urbanites to give up their turbocharged lifestyles and move back to the land is one solution. Among LavkaLavka’s farmers, he says, are a number of former city professionals including a journalist, an art dealer and a ballet director. “The main problem is that you don't see people in the middle of Russia,” he says. “Our idea is that people from the cities should move back.”
Akimov’s cri de coeur is not just practical: the past few years have kindled a profound and personal appreciation of the Russian countryside within him. Although he has a busy few years ahead of him with plans to open up more branches of LavkaLavka, a farmer’s market and a restaurant, he dreams of heading to Karelia, a region in northern Russian that runs along the Finnish border, where he has a house on an island with a big lake. Until then, he’ll make do with spending as much time in Russia’s great outdoors. “I have five homes all over the country,” he says. “Old traditional houses in beautiful surroundings in villages with totally different lifestyles. I think if I buy a house and spend even just several days a year there then I’ll be touching another reality and that excites me.”