Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Lithuanian Freedom Cheese: The Geopolitics of Gouda

If you have ever traveled, domestically or internationally, then you are no doubt familiar with the pre-departure onslaught of travel recommendations by family and friends. First, of course, they warn you of the locals. “Keep your wallet in your front pocket,” they tell you knowingly. “Or, better yet, store it in a pouch and wear it around your neck. That way nobody can steal it.” Next, they offer advice on the “must-see sights.” This is particularly true of those who have traveled to your intended destination. “Oh, you’re going to Vilnius?” they’ll ask. “You have to see Gediminas Tower!” And finally, they demand to know about the local cuisine. “So, what do the people eat there?” they’ll inquire with bated breath. The experienced traveler will then respond: “Oh, you know—rye bread, potatoes, berries and mushrooms, pork, smoked fish, and dairy,” all information that can be found with a simple Google search.

It is this lattermost question, though, that I find people back in the U.S. ask me most. “What is the food like in Lithuania?” Of course, they are most impressed by the dishes that are more thoroughly un-American, those like vėdarai, a sausage made of potato stuffed with the large intestine of a pig. But perhaps the largest surprise to my family and friends is the importance of dairy products here in Lithuania.

On my first trip to the local grocery, I learned very quickly that this is not the place where you will find American cheddar cheese. Lithuania has its own brands, notably—Pieno žvaigždės, Rokiškio sūris, Vilkyškių pieninė and Žemaitijos pienas—and their products line not one, but multiple store aisles. During my first meal at a Lithuanian restaurant, a brief glimpse at the menu revealed that virtually every dish contained meat, potatoes, and some form of dairy, whether cottage cheese, sour cream, or buttermilk. And while I certainly can’t profess to be a dairy connoisseur, I can say that I’ve yet to encounter a Lithuanian cheese I didn’t like!

Recently, however, I was introduced to a website called Freedom Cheese, dedicated to Lithuanian-made cheese that is banned in Russia. “In general, all of Lithuanian milk products are banned,” the website says, “so by buying them you will support democracy, freedom, openness, and integration.” The site goes on to say that, “Russia has a history of banning food products from countries with which it is sparring politically. It has, in the past, banned wine from Georgia, chocolate from Ukraine and, in 2010, chicken thighs from the U.S."

“Now,” the website continues, “it is Lithuania’s turn. Last week, Russia banned imports of Lithuanian dairy products after Gennady Onishchenko, the head of Russia’s health watchdog, said his agency found high traces of yeast, fungus and bacteria from intestinal tracts in them.” Ironically, this ban comes just one month before “Lithuania will host a summit at which three ex-Soviet states are expected to sign association agreements with the European Union, moving them farther outside Moscow's orbit.”

I certainly cannot comment on Russia’s motives; however, I can say that I’ve indulged in my fair share of Lithuanian dairy, and I’ve yet to experience any ill effects to my health. But what are your thoughts? Check out and share them below!