BORIS AKIMOV & SASHA MIKHAILOVPhotograph by Liza Zhitskaya
Where my geese at? Counter revolutionary Lavka turns back the clocks for a taste of the old school.
Where talk these days is of a food revolution (Jamie’s doing it in West Virginia, and Michael Pollan’s books are current curriculum for the chattering classes), the words on the lips of my dining companions, Boris Akimov and Sasha Mikhailov, are pointedly counter revolutionary. Fortunately though, this doesn’t mean a manifesto brimming with chemicals—visions of dinosaur shaped nuggets on the tables of all—but in fact something much more radical.
Moscow based Akimov and Mikhailov are the founders of Lavka, a company dedicated to sourcing and distributing organic food, grown and reared in bucolic Russian hamlets, to discerning customers in the country’s capital. Using Lavka’s website, potential buyers can peruse seasonal offerings, place an order, and then pick up the merchandise at a determined drop point.
Lack of quality produce has long vexed epicurious Muscovites and while farmers’ market’s (rynoks) offer a spectacular array of goods, consistency is a rarity. “You never know what you’ll get,” says Akimov. “You’re not sure if you’re buying the good stuff, even if it looks good.” Another problem with the markets, he explains, are the limited hours of operation which offer little recourse for the post work shopper. “When you go to supermarkets, you see a lot of shit and there’s no good food. Even if you go to an expensive one, it’s bullshit.”
Lavka’s foundations were initially laid through Akimov’s personal desire to find better food sources in the city. “The culture of cooking in Russia was almost forgotten,” he explains. “We saw that there was not much chance for us to get the good food that we wanted, and then understood that we needed to speak directly with the producers. We went to markets to talk with vendors selling good products, and asked where they were from and how their animals lived.” Once they cracked who the “real farmers” were, they set out to visit their villages and take their own look.
Having eventually sourced a viable network of suppliers, Boris and Sasha set to getting word out through their own extensive media connections (Boris is the former Creative Director of Snob magazine—a now defunct publication for the country’s dwindling intellectual elite—while Sasha worked as a former IT director of a large media company). The response was encouraging and even the most unlikely sources expressed interest. “I have one friend—the owner of a big meat factory,” recalls Akimov, “he owns 20 million pigs and [I'm] talking about organic food. [He’s] then saying, ‘Great!, I want it too!’”
While clearly operating to make a profit—illustrated in part by the eye-watering prices on the website—Lavka also operates as a social
initiative by giving back to their farmers at the same time. “They’ll continue to live in their villages, to let their children grow there, and they won’t have any problems socializing in new cities. Your money helps to maintain their tradition,” explains Akimov. “It’s an important thing,”
The Lavka website features videos introducing customers to prospective producers—showing clips of their livestock and their crops to its urbane audience. “I want them to have the ability to choose duck from Nastasya Petrovna,” he explains. “On the site they can see Nastasya saying that she lives in ‘X’ village, and that these are her ducks and chickens. “You go on there, see that Nastasya is looking good, and maybe her ducks are as great looking as she is.”
Akimov’s choice of his possible peasant’s name is perhaps portentious. By sneaking in Nastasya Petrovna—the kindly cook from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—he reveals a glimmer of his counter-revolutionary agenda. “After the revolution, we lost a lot of things, and among these was good Russian cooking,” he explains. “In Moscow there are a few places to get good food, but if you go to any other Russian city and village, the food is crap! We used to have it, but the Soviet system broke all the cultural spheres of living and cooking because all of the tradition disappeared.”
Akimov slouches back in his chair and asks if I know of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. The play, based on the decline of an upper class dynasty, contains a passage where the bored and disaffected character Andrei laments the trappings of their collective wealth.
“The present is beastly, but when I think of the future, how good it is! I feel so light, so free; there is a light in the distance, I see freedom. I see myself and my children freeing ourselves from vanities, from kvass, from goose baked with cabbage, from after dinner naps, from base idleness…”
Little did poor Andrei realize, but within a decade the Russian goose would be cooked and, almost a century later, still yet to roost. “To the return of the geese,” Akimov says thrusting enthusiastically forward, glass in hand. “We decided we have to be cooking counter revolutionary. We want the geese to return to Russian table!.” According to Akimov, books by pre-revolutionary authors—Vladimir Gilyarovsky for example—detailed 19th century Moscow as a feast for all the senses. “You can’t imagine how people had such an amount of choice and so many things to eat.”
With the interest in projects like Lavka growing, revolutionary ferment is in the air. Akimov and Mikhailov plan to create a brick-and-mortar location in the center of the city sometime in the near future, which while serving as a pick up point for the web orders, they also sees as a hub for the city’s forthcoming food renaissance. Customers will also be able to meet the producers, sample products, and attend daily cooking demonstrations using Lavka’s superlative ingredients.
Recently, Akimov unearthed a farm with a breed of pigs that at some point genetically crossed paths with rapacious wild boars. “They live in the forest with the traditional life of wild pigs. The meat is very similar to the wild boar, yet tastes a little sweet and it’s absolutely ecological,” he explains before using a word that describes both the beast’s history and Lavka’s future ambitions: “It’s heritage.”