Jay Close, The Cheese - Man of Moscow Oblast
I visited Jay Close, in the middle of the Russian countryside, 55 kilometres north of Moscow in a small village called Mashnitsa. Over a cup of tea in his modest but comfortable house, with a plate of very tasty cheeses and toast in front of me, from which it was difficult to divert my attention, I asked him about his life and his cheese making. At first I found Jay, with his southern American drawl, difficult to take seriously, but by the end of the interview I was signed up. He’s for real.
How long have you been here, Jay?
A couple of years. I originally came here from Moscow, where I rented apartments for 18 years. I was tired of city life, with its aggressive drivers and traffic jams. I came up with the idea of building a place in the country, where I can grow my own vegetables, this kind of thing. I met my wife when I was buying logs for my first cabin. She and her friends helped me with the building work, we started out with just a ‘budka’ or a shack, whilst we built the house. Then we built a barn for the animals. My wife wanted a cow, and we wanted children. We wanted to feed them the best we possibly could. We got a bull to impregnate the cows. We got another one and another one, then we started collecting sheep and goats and cows. When cows give birth, automatically the milk starts, then we had the problem of what to do with ten to twenty litres of milk a day.
So you didn’t come here specifically to set up an organic cheese production facility?
I had no idea what I was doing here, except that I knew I wanted to get out of the city. I like the Russian way of growing your vegetables in the summer then conserving them and storing them for use the whole year round. That way you can make the food that you like to eat, when you want, with what you want. That’s the way we do it in the country, we make for ourselves. In Europe and Americaalmost nobody does that any more. You just go to the store and buy whatever the advertising tells you.
So you’re virtually self-sufficient then?
Yes, I would say so, we go to the city to sell cheese for money to feed the animals. I have no other job except the farm now. I don’t really want another job, because that means I have to go to the city when other people want me to. I go into Moscow at ten in the evening, drop off cheese and come back at 1am, in time to get some sleep, because cheese making is a 24-hour-a-day business. It’s four hours under the press, then four hours in the form, then a day or two in brine solution, and so on. I was warned that making cheese is hard work. It is. In other countries you could apply for some government funding or tax breaks. Here the attitude is: You picked it, you do it.
When you say organic cheese, what do they mean by that?
To feed the cows, we give them hay and kombi korm, which is mixed grains, and that’s all they get. Oh, they also get all the whey, and the grass they graze on. We don’t feed them silage like all the farmers, and no fertilisers are used. We keep the animals as clean as we can. The milk is filtered at least once, then it is pasteurised after two days. There are many variants on when you pasteurise and at what temperature, depending on what kind of cheese you want to make. From ten litres of milk, you get one kilogram of cheese, but what you get in the supermarket is cheese made from six litres of milk, to which they add some chemicals to make it more like cheese. So it doesn’t have the rich, creamy taste that natural cheese has.
Do you have to have any special permission or licenses?
Yes you do, the local vet has to come and give inoculations against swine flu or whatever. The animals are checked regularly, and we also have a couple of local vets who come by and help us with giving birth. There is always something new to learn. I basically knew nothing about farming when I came here; it’s is my wife who knew about farming and cows and preserving vegetables.
Who buys your cheese?
As clients, I have bankers, a girl who is a tea-master, I have vodka dealers, my neighbours, a glazier, guys who own restaurants and their partners, accountants who buy cheese. But the market is pretty small really, considering the size of Moscow. I can’tsell to supermarkets because they need certain certificates which I don’t have. I want to do it the proper way, when we are approved by them with little or no bribes, so I need to build a separate place to cater for their fine points; a certain number of sinks, not less than a certain distance from each other, and so on. Your water boiler cannot be more than a certain distance from your watercourse and so on. I will do all of this, but step by step.
Are there many people like you doing this?
Very few. The Russian market is hard to break into. You have to have some connections.
But you didn’t have any connections, you just started.
Yes I did. I’d been a chef in Moscow for 17 years. Being in the restaurant and night club business for so long, I’ve got to know half of Moscow, you could say.
It costs about 50 roubles to buy a litre of milk in Moscow
So you’re making a kilogram of cheese, you need 10 litres of milk, that’s 500 roubles without the cost of making the cheese or packaging it. How do they make cheese and sell it for 250 or 300 roubles a kilogram? They use powdered milk or additives. It’s not real cheese. Everybody wants something cheaper, but in the end you pay for what you get. If you want to get something quality that’s made in the same way as it was 150 years ago, before they learnt how to put air into ice cream, you have to pay a bit more for it.
There are only one or two organic health food shops in the whole of Moscow, in a city of 13 million people, why is this?
Well in the time that me and you have lived here, Moscow has changed. The changes are colossal. Some of the changes are good, some bad. Before, for example, the pensioners could live on their pensions, now they have to grow their own potatoes just to survive. They can’t afford medicines.
Would you like to open up a shop here, after all you’re on the road to St. Petersburg?
Yes, I’d like that too. We are starting to make our own wine, at the moment only for ourselves. Someone says you should make “samogon” (moonshine) but I don’t want drunks coming round and asking me if they can get a bottle from me today and pay me tomorrow. So I’m trying to keep the business small and simple.
Handmade in Moscow - Organic Cheese & Dairy Products: Available in a variety of flavors & spices. Delivery & discount on volume. Call for details +7 916 112 4361 Jay. Spread the word!
- Fenugreek (Walnut Flavored)
- Mixed Mustardseed
- Italian Garden (Sundried Tomatos, Paprika, Onion, Garlic, Basil, Thyme and Pepper)
- Celery (Leaves)
- Ginger, Paprika, Onion, Garlic, Horseradish
- Cayenne Pepper (Hot & Spicy)
- Mixed Peppercorns (Black, Grey, Green, Red, Pink)
- Cumin or Caraway Seeds
- Stinging Nettle (крапива)
- Indian Garden (Parsley, Onion, Garlic, Pepper, Curry)
- Garden Herbs (Chives, Celery, Parsley, Onion, Garlic)
- Feta (also available from Goats Milk)
- Ricotta (Plain or Choice of Flavor)
- Cottage Cheese
- Sour Cream
- Milk (Fresh or Pasteurized)
Farm is 5 km north of solnitchnygorsk on the lenningradsky shosse. Yes my wife is Russian - Valentina. So we surfed the same beaches that’s great maybe meet in the Pacific Ocean.