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Close encounter: how an American expat became Moscow’s foremost cheesemaker

Close encounter: how an American expat became Moscow's foremost cheesemaker

US-born Jay Robert Close has lived in Mexico, Australia and Bora-Bora. But it is in the depths of the Russian countryside that he has finally settled and it is cheese that he devotes his time to

28 May 2013
Text Dmitry Panov
Image Alexei Mikhailovich

Jay Robert Close is a man of many hats. He has in the past fed crocodiles at a farm in Papua New Guinea, built swimming pools, worked as a carpenter and as a driver for a travelling circus. Along the way, Close, who was born in New York and raised in Mexico, has lived in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Bora-Bora and Hawaii. He speaks English, French, Italian, Spanish and Russian. After years of a peripatetic lifestyle, the 50-year-old finally settled in Russia. Now he lives in the depths of the Russian countryside where he has devoted himself to cheesemaking.

When he first moved to Russia, it was to Moscow in 2005. After three years of battling with endless traffic jams and locals’ brusque attitudes, Close decided to relocate to the Russian hinterland. “I was tired of all that. I wanted to be my own boss,” he says. “To build my own home and not depend on anyone.” His move to Solnechnogorsk, a village north-west of Moscow, has worked out well. As well as selling cheese, Close has opened up his farm to agritourism. Now anyone who’s interested can drop by for a visit. “My house is only 700 metres from the Moscow-St Petersburg main road,” he says. “Buses come, tourists visit me, drink milk and tea and buy cheese.”

“It’s never boring in Russia and I’m the sort of guy who needs to be constantly shaken up”

Close first discovered the joy of cheesemaking on a trip to Amsterdam. “I wandered into a cheesemaker’s and grew interested in the process,” he says. “When I got back to Russia, I bought a cow and started to run my own farm. At first it was just milk but it’s difficult to keep so it was better to make cheese, which can last for a couple of years. I studied cheesemaking at a special school for two years and then invested in some specialist equipment.”

Today Close makes more than 20 varieties of cheese, infused with ingredients such as rosemary, nettle leaves, ginger and asparagus, which are sold in a number of establishments across Moscow. His primary outlet is LavkaLavka, a farmers’ collective and cafe, in the Arma complex, an old gasworks behind Kursky station. The rise in popularity of places like LavkaLavka and the artisanal, organic ingredients it supplies, signals an important shift in Russian mentality — away from western fare in glitzy venues towards fresh, farm food served in low-key, rustic-style joints.

Close is better known to Russians for his appearances on television cooking competitions, for which he was once a sought-after guest. In Moscow, it’s the it-crowd who know him from working in various drinking dens and restaurants, including the legendary Hungry Duck, a dive bar that in its heyday encapsulated the hedonism, not to mention violence, of Russia in the Nineties. More pacific, was his job as a cook on a ship, which travelled up and down the Volga River between Moscow and St Petersburg. All this came before his disappearance from public view and retreat into the countryside.

After living in tropical locations such as Hawaii, blessed with year-round balmy weather, why did Close decide to put down roots in Russia? “I love snow,” he says. “I like the way it crunches under your feet.” Close first travelled to Russia in 1993 on the invitation of friends. He insisted on experiencing the “real Russia”, a request his friends took literally. “I was put into a flat in Kuzminki, southern Moscow. I was shocked by the local market: dirt all around, drunks everywhere, rank meat. The butcher’s clothes were black from dirt and congealed blood. There were flies everywhere. At the end of the trip, my friends asked me, ‘So now do you understand what life in Russia is like?’ I just shrugged. But I was intrigued so I returned again and again for longer and longer periods each time. It’s never boring in Russia and I’m the sort of guy who needs to be constantly shaken up.”

Given Close’s colourful past not to mention joie de vivre, it comes as no surprise to hear about his close brush with the law. Although it’s cheese that he now dedicates his time and attention to, it used to be cannabis, a pursuit that landed him with a four-year suspended sentence. “One day I’m on my way home and I run into a policeman,” he explains. “He says, ‘Hello, we know that you’re growing cannabis.’ I replied that it was true but that I don’t sell it and grow it for myself. First he saw what I was growing at home and then we had a smoke together.” Close is certain that it was one of his neighbours who gave him up to the police but he is cordial with them all the same. He gets on best with an elderly, female neighbour (they once birthed a calf together) as well as a nearby healer, who cured him of his neck and knee pains. The slap on the wrist may have put an end to his cultivation of cannabis but certainly not his love for the plant. “By the way do you have anything to smoke?” he says. “Because I don’t grow anymore.”

This article was first published on LavkaLavka.

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