Photograph by Aubrey Betelsman.

A dairyphobe’s dilemma. The vast resources of a nation drowning in lactic libations

To the lactose intolerant, a visit to any one of Moscow’s many gastronoms (delis) is its own delightful form of Russian roulette. Faced with a bewildering array of milky morsels and lactic libations, the goods on offer run the gauntlet from familiar to utterly foreign.

Often of nationalistic bent, the average Russian is quick to assert the supremacy of homegrown dairy products, while maintaining that things—almost all things—were far better during the Soviet Union. While this is debatable, what isn’t is the fact that Russians have long prized the quality of their milky output.

Globalization and technological advances have done much to decimate traditional foodways, yet Russian dairy products are superior to their western counterparts—certainly in quantity, and fairly often in quality.

At the very bottom left of the cooler case is moloko, or regular milk—nothing too different here—same as back home more or less. That said, a visit to one of the city’s rynoks, or “farmers’ markets,” reveals a local obsession with finding the ne plus ultra of milk, as an armada of babushkas descend, sharp-elbowed and demanding samples of the day’s milk before parting with their hard-earned rubles.

Next along is a wide selection of kefir, a fermented product created by the addition of kefir “grain” to pasteurized milk. Mildly alcoholic with a slight fizz, kefir is extremely popular in Russia as a health drink and, as like most things in this part of the world, has a raft of holistic benefits attributed to it. Additionally, kefir is added to several traditional recipes, most often in a creamy version of okroshka, a cold vegetable soup par excellence.

To the right, naturally, is prostokvasha, a soured milk created by adding a previous batch of it to pasteurized milk. Similar to yoghurt, the soured milk is reduced over heat and contains a fairly high fat content. Ryazhenka is prostokvasha’s baked cousin—the tawny colored concoction is endowed with all the benefits of its pale forebear, yet offers the added bonus of a slight caramelized and nutty flavour. Similar in appearance, yet lacking the sour quality, is ryazhenka’s neighbor, toplyonoye moloko, or “baked milk.”

One shelf up sits a wide assortment of tvorog, a soft curd similar to cottage cheese with a whiff of ricotta. Eaten with smetana, or “sour cream” for breakfast, tvorog often finds itself sequestered into all manner of deserts from sweet pancakes (blinchiki s tvorogom), to sweet curd cheese cakes.

Last, but certainly not least, we move on to the specialty case, the foreign favorites. There’s ayran, an Azerbaijani salty drinkable yogurt often served with dill or mint, and kumis, a specialty of the Tatars. A drinkable mare’s milk, kumis is fermented—a beneficial process that renders the lactose into lactic acid, ethanol, and carbon dioxide. The result? A fizzy, sour, alcoholic beverage that while safe for the lactose intolerant, may still present problems of its very own.