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Feature Story April 21, 2006
 
Mayonaisse Nation
By Jake Rudnitsky Browse author Email
 
 

It starts with a shot of a flaky, delicious-looking croissant in a sunny cafe. A debonair yet authoritive male voice says, "In Paris, they have croissants." Cut to a cup of espresso and an appetizing sausage flanked by sauerkraut and sweet mustard. "In Rome, they have espresso. In Vienna they have wienerwurst."

...And finally, the punchline: "In Moscow, we have mayonnaise!"

Just a small subset of Russia's mayo options.
(Click to enlarge)

This isn't a joke. It's an ad for Provencal mayonnaise that was running all over Russian TV about a month ago. It shows a fresh salad of beautiful, bright tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs, all glistening after a rinse, and then: the mayonnaise comes cascading down in sensual slow motion. And we're not talking a dollop of mayo here, folks. Aesthetically, the ad borrowed from a typical American breakfast cereal commercial, only instead of milk splashing down onto Honey Smacks, about a gallon of mayo gets squeezed onto the doomed veggies. And that's when the announcer proudly tells us how Moscow is famous for its mayonnaise.

Indeed, nothing says Russian food like mayonnaise, where literally everything that doesn't have sugar as its main ingredient is subject to mayonnaisification. It transcends the role of condiment, often acting as the main flavor in Russian concoctions. Here at the eXile, we decided to explore Russia's obsession with mayonnaise, by going to the heart of the machine: a mayonnaise factory in Moscow.

We went in search of the answer to why everything from nachos and pizza to borsch and pelmeni (often acting as a substitute for smetana) comes with the emulsified treat. You may have noticed at your local Perekrostik supermarket that most mayo here doesn't come in re-sealable containers. That's not an oversight or the result of Soviet central planning - it's because mayo, like vodka, isn't meant to be put away after opening. They sell it in 250g plastic bags, which just so happens to be the recommended dose of mayo for most Russian salads on popular cooking websites like gotovim.ru.

After almost a week and contacting over 20 different mayo factories, our babe-intern Olya found a small producer in the Ramensky raiyon willing to open their doors to us. As an added bonus, Miksma let us take a look at their kolbasa line as well. Sergei Stepanov, the factory's affable director, was even cool with us packing a camera and taking videos! Why shouldn't he be proud, after all.

Miksma churns out over three tons of Lyubitelsky (which means amateur) mayo a day, all for sale in local stores and markets. That's right, we'll say it again: those 100 tons a month never leave just the Ramensky district of Moscow. For an area with a population of 210,000, that averages out to almost a pound of mayo for every man, woman and child per month. And it's not like they've got a monopoly on mayo in their region. Lyubitelsky isn't even stocked in the region's chain supermarkets like Pyatorochka or Perekrostik.

Fuck! Only 250 grams?!

So what's the secret to its success? "Russian mayonnaise has a different goal than American," Stepanov explained. "It isn't as neutral."

Despite what Stepanov said about the quality of his product and using only the best available ingredients, it's pretty clear why people buy it: Lyubitelsky mayo is the cheapest brand on the shelf. A kilo of Lyubitelsky runs about 56 rubles in stores, whereas brand name Baltimore costs 41 rubles for half as much.

Ramensky is a 45-minute train ride from Kazansky station on the modern Sputnik elektrichka. It's not as ghetto as many places in podmoskovie. In fact, it has a shiny new shopping center by the station. Still, just about everyone in the town commutes to Moscow to work, most working a rung above manual labor but solidly lower-middle-class. This demographic is Lyubitelsky's target group, people earning up to $500 bucks a month. If you eat as much mayo as the average Russian, Lyubitelsky can save you quite a few kopecks. According to the Levada Center, 34 percent of Russians eat some mayo almost every day, and another 24 percent have it 2-3 times a week. Russia consumes 450,000 tons of mayo a year according to the International Marketing Center, and the annual market is valued at up to $1.7 billion! What oil is to America, mayo is to Russia.

An interesting sidenote: Stepanov told me about the "Mayonnaise Crisis of 2001," when overproduction of mayonnaise across Russia caused the price of mayo to collapse, bankrupting huge numbers of factories.

Russia actually regulates its mayo, much like France with its wines. The state specifies three types of mayo - heavy, medium and light - according to the amount of fat it packs, with heavy being at least 60 percent, medium at least 45 percent, and light anything under that. But, unlike the obese West, you pay a premium for fat in Russia. The lighter the mayo, the less oil you have to pump into it. Since oil's the most expensive ingredient, the light stuff's cheaper. They make it up by adding more emulsifier to stiffen it up. It doesn't help too much, though, at least judging by Lyubitelsky. The consistency was way soupier than mayo oughta be.

The production process at Miksma is charmingly low-tech. It doesn't take much space to produce three tons of mayo a day, and the entire enterprise fits into a room maybe 5 by 15 meters. It looks like your typical light industrial space in Russia - poorly laid out, cramped and very shabby around the edges. The floor and the walls were tiled and the space was well-scrubbed but far from spotless.

And this is where it all happens...
(Click to enlarge photo)

A modern mayo production plant is totally automated, with a quality control officer keeping an eye on things to make sure nothing nasty falls into the jars. Big brands like Provencal and Moya Semya are no doubt produced on western machinery lines. Lyubitelsky, on the other hand, still has that ol' human touch. And why not, when labor costs about a hundred bucks a month? There were five uniformed workers, with three women in blue aprons and the same type of hats you might see at a stolovaya and two men in green and yellow factory-floor coats.

The process begins by blending water into dried egg powder in a large and gnarly-looking blender. While everything else takes place in covered or sealed stainless steel vats, the blender's top is open, giving rise to thoughts of exactly what might fall in. From there, the reconstituted egg gets scooped into a shoulder high vat, where it gets mixed with oil, vinegar, water, emulsifier and preservatives. Stepanov lifted the lid while this mixture was brewing and you could see the sunflower oil pouring into a milky mixture, stirred by giant blades.

It then gets pumped to a larger, pressurized vat where it's pressurized to 100 atmospheres. This, says Stepanov, is the key point in mayo production. "That's the moment it gets its fluff," he said. "Too little pressure and you've got watery mayo, too much and it spoils it."

All this is powered by a couple of pumps working in one corner, which added an industrial soundtrack to the factory floor. They then send it to a giant funnel-like contraption, which then distributes the mayo to one of two stations. At the stations, the workers finally get involved, with the challenging task of positioning two empty plastic jars under the nozzles every 10 seconds, where a pre-set amount of mayo is squirted into the jars (which come in three sizes - 1kg, 500g, 250g). The worker then places the filled jar down, where the next worker screws on the tops and pushes the jars further along the line.

A guy that works at a mayo plant could never be of the serial killer variety... Just look at that kind gaze of his.

The final step is preformed by the forewoman, who affixes a sticker seal on the jar and packs the jar in a box.

No one involved in the process was wearing gloves, which surprised me. Judging from other factories I've visited, I thought they'd at least try to put on a show for a journalist. Still, there wasn't ever direct contact between the workers' hands and the mayo, which is more than I can say for the meat-processing section. There, workers with bare hands touched the ground meat at every step of the process. The floor had the same well-scrubbed look as the mayo section, where the occasional missing tile was replaced by a cement patch. I won't go into the details of sausage making, but anyone interested can check out the videos on our website.

* * *

When Yasha and I got back to Moscow, we came back to the office for a taste-test with some of the free samples Stepanov gave us. We wanted to test his assertion that, "Mayonnaise taste differs very significantly, not like Coke vs. Pepsi."

We forced our secretary Guzel and salesgirl Lena to sample the mayo wares, along with three other brands we picked up at a corner store: Sloboda (Russia's fourth-most popular brand, made with olive oil); Restauran Neapol (a light mayo); Skit (a fatty sunflower oil mayo); and Lyubitelsky. We served the goods straight-up, without anything to dilute the flavor. And the results were shocking.

Yasha, for all his Berkeley-educated mannerisms and American exterior, proved the ol' saying about how you can take the Russian out of zhopa, but you can't take zhopa out of a Russian. Even though he left Russia when he was 8, he ranked the mayos in the exact same order as the girls did. The least fatty was the worst, with Skit, a cheap, high-fat brand ranking the highest. That's all they're looking for. As the lone American, I ranked them exactly opposite, with the low-fat Neapol winning.

Everybody who's ever crossed the border into Russia has some mayonnaise horror stories about the globby yellowish sauce that covers just about everything, from myaso po-frantsuskii to selyodka pod shuboi. A girl on my study abroad program even became anorexic to avoid the mayo her host-mother was constantly plying on her. I can only hope this article goes a little way to bridging that cultural gap.

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