Jay Close The Cheese Man

Max Ernst

Russia doesn’t seem like the kind of place where people voluntarily trade in a comfortable urban life for a hard life in the countryside. But, surprising as it may seem, there are some such people, and American Jay Close is one of them. He spent 17 years working in the restaurant and club business in downtown Moscow before packing up his rucksack, putting on his Texas boots and heading up north firstly to a small village called Mashnitsa, 55 kilometres north of Moscow. He recently teamed up with a group of English farmers in a large farm 100 km north of MKAD on Gorkovskoe Shosse. MeL went to visit him.

Why did you leave the city?
I had been living in Moscow and renting apartments for 17 or 18 years. I was kind of exhausted by city life; by the pollution and the aggressive drivers and traffic jams. I came up with the idea of building a place in the countryside and growing my own vegetables. I met my wife when I was looking for logs to build a cabin. My wife and her friends helped me build a place, and we started out with just a small ‘budka,’ which is just a little shack while we built the house. Then we built a barn for the animals, because my wife wanted a cow, and we wanted kids, and we still do, but we wanted to feed them the best we possibly could. We eventually gota bull to impregnate the cow, and that one went, and we got another and another, then we started collecting sheep and goats. Then we had 7 cows and 2 bulls. When cows give birth they automatically start giving milk, so with 30 litres a day you start to think about what you can do with all this milk, especially if you haven’t got kids yet. In the new farm, we have 1500 milking cows alone, this is a huge operation. I have a separate glass-fronted cheese making plant, so people can see how the cheese is made.

So you got into organic cheese making almost by accident?
I had no idea what I was heading into, apart from getting out of the city. When I got to Masnitsa village, I started cultivating a garden to grow my own vegetables. When I lived in California and Australia, I was always keen on gardening. I like the Russian idea of growing everything in the summer and then conserving it for use in the winter. All the babushkas do that, but in Europe and America nobody really does that anymore; you just go to the store and buy what you want. You get a lot out of this if you do it yourself and you can control the whole process. It’s like if you’re a chef, you can make the food as you want to eat it, if you go into somebody’s restaurant that’s not the way it is. You’re used to having your salads with extra cheese or tomatoes, well that’s the way we do it in the country, we do it like it’s for ourselves.

What do you mean by organic cheese?
We don’t give the cows any non-organic food stuffs to eat; we give them grains and whey. From 10 litres of milk, we get 1 kilogramme of cheese. But what you’re getting in the supermarket is 6 litres of milk in every kilogramme plus additives and preservatives to make it look more like cheese, so it doesn’t have that rich creamy taste that natural cheese has. Our cheese you can keep up to two years if it’s covered with wax or latex.

Who in Moscow buys this stuff?
Bankers, wall-street guys, vodka dealers, my neighbours; one is an engineer, the other is a glazier. A lot of housewives, all sorts of people buy cheese. I’ve got clients who own restaurants or are accountants. The Russian mainstream market is kind of hard to break into, you have to have the right kind of connections, I don’t have them, but now I have teamed up with a larger farming business, the sky’s the limit. 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?

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.

Cheeses made by Jay:

1. Fenugreek (Walnut Flavored)
2. Mixed Mustardseed
3. Italian Garden (Sundried Tomatos,
Paprika, Onion, Garlic, Basil, Thyme and Pepper)
4. Celery (Leaves)
5. Ginger, Paprika, Onion, Garlic, Horseradish
6. Asparagus
7. Cayenne Pepper (Hot & Spicy)
8. Mixed Peppercorns (Black, Grey, Green, Red, Pink)
9. Basil
10. Cumin or Caraway Seeds
11. Stinging Nettle (крапива)
12. Indian Garden (Parsley, Onion, Garlic, Pepper, Curry)
13. Garden Herbs (Chives, Celery, Parsley, Onion, Garlic)
14. Feta (also available from Goats Milk)
15. Ricotta (Plain or Choice of Flavor)
16. Edam
17. Gouda
18. Cajun
19. Cottage Cheese

1. Yogurt
2. Sour Cream
3. Milk (Fresh or Pasteurized)

Call Jay for details: +7 916 112 4361