But while Russians grumble about the rising price of chicken, cheese or sausage, it was only when rumours spread of buckwheat supplies running low that shoppers dashed out to fill their trolleys.
Buckwheat “is not just a food, it is a national idea,” Russia’s leading business daily, Vedomosti, wrote recently in an editorial.
While in the West buckwheat is more seen as a trendy food for the health conscious, in Russia it is a traditional staple, predating potatoes.
The cereal, which originates from India and Nepal, was first introduced to the Russians in the 13th century by the Mongol invaders. It was cultivated by Byzantine monks, leading to its name in Russian of “grechka,” which sounds like Greek.
Buckwheat can be eaten at any meal in Russia, whether simmered with milk as a porridge for breakfast, served with chopped liver for lunch, or even stuffed inside a roast piglet at a special dinner.
It is ubiquitous in the cafeterias of Russian schools and kindergartens, hospitals, military barracks and prisons.
This autumn as Russians began to feel the effects of sanctions and the retaliatory embargo on most Western foods ordered by President Vladimir Putin, news spread of a low harvest in Russia’s buckwheat heartland — the Altai region in Siberia.
Due to a drought, Russia’s buckwheat harvest fell this year to just under 600,000 tonnes, against the usual 700,000 tons.
Buying just in case
That was hardly a disaster, but media reports were enough to spark panic demand among consumers with people storming shops across several regions.
“In Moscow, people see a television news report about a buckwheat crisis in Penza”, a city 600 kilometres (350 miles) away, and “in just four days they buy up buckwheat stocks that would normally be enough for two months,” the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily wrote.
One supermarket chain in the northwestern city of Saint Petersburg even introduced a five-pack limit for buckwheat purchases.
Even though buckwheat is homegrown and so little affected by sanctions or the falling ruble, the price of a packet of buckwheat rose from around 30 rubles to 50 rubles ($0.93) in Moscow and doubled in some regions.
“People store up on buckwheat — which can be kept for a long time — because they do not know what to expect from the (Western) sanctions,” said Galina, a trader at a Saint Petersburg food market.
There have been “buckwheat crises” in the past, most recently sparked by a 2010 drought, said Alexei Makarkin, a political analyst with the Centre for Political Technologies.
But what is different now is that “there is no question of a real shortage of buckwheat,” said Dmitry Rylko of the Institute for Agricultural Market Studies.
While initially there was no problem with supplies, “excessive demand sparked” the buckwheat crisis, said Alexey Alexeyenko, a senior official at Russia’s food safety agency, Rosselkhoznadzor.
Russian media called the phenomenon “hysteria” or even “buckwheat psychosis.”
A survey conducted in late November by the Levada Center pollster found that almost a third of the Russians had stocked up on buckwheat in recent weeks.
Buckwheat stockpiling is more a symbol of troubled times, Rylko said, calling it “a sacred food for Russians that disappears at the onset of any signs of crisis.”
The Kremlin’s retaliatory embargo banning Western food imports has hit Russian consumers hard.
Prices have gone up 30 to 40 percent for basic foods such as eggs, pork, chicken, frozen fish and sausage since the counter sanctions were imposed. (AFP)