MASLOVKA — "Hi, uh, do the Frenchmen live here?" asked the small delegation of women gathered in front of Maslovka's largest house. Inna Myachina, a resident from the neighboring village, had brought her mother, her sister and her niece. "People are talking, saying that Frenchmen have come to Maslovka and are making good cheese — the forbidden kind. So we are trying to be neighborly and came to see if it is true," she explained.

Maslovka, a village located some 400 kilometers south of Moscow, is too small to appear on maps. Though the village had 750 homes at the height of the Soviet era, today there is barely more than grass-covered ruins, a stop light and a couple of street signs. Maslovka is now little more than two cabins that occasionally host vacationers from the city and one large stone manor house with outbuildings. Vladimir Borev, a former Muscovite, journalist and translator lives here. He is now a farmer, the owner of a herd of cows. He's also the person who brought the Frenchmen everyone is talking about. "So, can we try the cheese?" Myachina asks. "Can we see the Frenchmen?" adds her mother.

The "Frenchmen," who are actually a couple, emerge. Nicole and Gilles de Vouge, farmers from Corsica, are members of an association of traditional cheesemakers and have been making cheese for nearly half a century. Borev met them a while ago, when he participated in a training program on their farm.

"Nicole and Gilles are teaching me to make genuine French cheese," Borev explains. "There is nothing in it other than milk, salt and mold! The most important difference, though, is that the French don't boil their milk — all of the beneficial bacteria are preserved. A real cheese should be raw."

Finnish cheese is off limits in Russia too. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski/ZUMA

Myachina nods her head in understanding. Nicole and Gilles just smile because they don't speak Russian. "Do you have any children?" Myachina's mother suddenly asks, and Nicole starts to explain that they have three grown children, none of whom want to work on the farm. The women nod knowingly again. "Kids are like that," Myachina's mother says. "You teach them how to milk a cow and plant potatoes, then they say they're going to the city. That's why our village is dying. We have so much land and so few people. Have you seen?"

Gorgeous but barren

Nicole had seen. When she arrived with Gilles in Maslovka, she couldn't understand why the area was so deserted. "What a huge, rich country! You have a road, a river, pasture — and it's beautiful. Why doesn't anyone live here?" she said when she first arrived. Borev took the couple to a local festival soon thereafter, and one of the residents took the stage to ask the government to provide more jobs. The Corsicans couldn't understand it. "How can a farmer ask for more jobs? What is preventing him from buying five goats and three cows and making cheese? Let him come to us for training. We'll show him how you should earn money."

The French couple have taught Borev how to make high-quality cheese, but so far he hasn't made much money doing it. "I have 18 goats and four cows," Borev says. "That comes out to around 12 kilos of cheese per day. Most of it I send to my family in Moscow, my children and grandchildren. I send gifts to friends. Sometimes people come here to buy cheese. But I don't sell to stores, out of principle. They don't know how to store cheese properly, and the prices they expect are crazy. So if someone wants my cheese, let him or her come here to get it."

Each piece of cheese has its own story, Borev says, explaining his vague price policy. "It's an art, so how can you sell the cheese by weight? It's not like you would say, 'Cut me two meters of Picasso' in an art gallery."

Borev turns the cheese stored in his cellar several times per day, a trick he learned from the French cheesemakers. He has also learned never to rush. He initially wanted to add warm milk to the cold milk, to speed up the cheesemaking process. But the French couple forbade him from doing so, explaining that the cheese would experience a thermal shock, harming the lactobacilli that are essential to a successful, live cheese.

Borev smells the goods. Photo: Eugene Gurko/Kommersant

So Borev gets up at 6 a.m. to pour his milk and turn the cheese wheels under the watchful eyes of Nicole and Gilles, trying not to make any sudden movements. He's already thought of several names for his cheese varieties, including one called "Mistral" after the military helicopter carriers France was supposed to sell Russia before the relationship soured and embargoes were instituted on products such as French cheese.

"If the French didn't give us the helicopters, at least we'll take their cheesemaking technology," Borev says. "The amount of French cheese that Russians eat in 15 years is equal in value to the Mistral contract. Can you imagine how much money we're talking about? But now we're going to produce the cheese ourselves."