The stone cottage shrouded in greenery at the end of the lonely boreen is picture postcard perfect. Rain drops fall reluctantly from the trees, caught by the rays of sunlight that suddenly appear in the aftermath of another thunder shower. Emerging out of a grassy wall, a woman weeding the verge indicates the modern building behind a white van. ‘Silke is in there,’ she says in a guttral accent.
There is nothing incongruous about this setting in rural Cavan, a few kilometres from the border with Fermanagh. Artisan Ireland requires the European Union stamp of approval and just to prove this point, cheese-maker Silke Cropp explains that an inspector from the department is arriving to take away some cheeses for testing.
Thirty years ago when she started making cheese with the suplus milk from her goats, the state was ambivalent towards cheese-making. There were no specific regulations and no suited visitors, just passing tourists keen to have a unique taste of Ireland.
During the blistering hot summer of 1995 the Sheridan brothers Kevin and Seamus sold Irish cheeses in Galway’s St Nicholas Market on Churchyard Street, not expecting their little venture to last. Two years later they moved off the street into an adjacent shop.
‘There were all these fantastic cheese-makers who had invented their own cheeses,’ says Kevin Sheridan, ‘and we were thinking, are we at a peak, as these people retire are we going to be left with none?’
Now, almost twenty years later Sheridans Cheesemongers operate in Dublin, Galway, Meath and Waterford, and distribute abroad. Far from the nascent industry dying, it came alive. Quality was the key, and the fact that it was hand-made.
Cheese is the traditional food of country living, the way it has always been going back thousands of years to the last ice age.
In the 1950s artisan production in Europe was back in the ascendancy, and cheese, followed by sausages and salamis, breads and pastries, jams and sauces, led the way.
When the Sheridans were selling cheese in the late-1990s a third wave of Irish cheese-makers were beginning to make reputations for themselves, and the second wave, cheese-lovers like Silke Cropp, were established and getting rave reviews. The first wave in the 1970s were already cheese legends, but times were changing.
‘The road to market was the biggest problem,’ Silke Cropp says of the days when transport was painstakingly slow and couriers were city-based. ‘I thought about exporting to Germany but that was too expensive, it only started to work when I joined the food coop in Dublin in 1989 and travelled in our old Morris Minor, getting up at four in the morning, it was a long day.’
Her children got involved, daughter Tina setting up her own stall in the new Temple Bar market in Dublin when she was 15. They sold cow’s, goat’s and sheep’s mature cheeses made with raw milk and vegetarian rennet. At the food coop their cheese appealed to vegetarians who shunned animal rennet made cheese.
‘I felt that I needed direct customers if I wanted to make any money at all, and that hasn’t changed, we sell to restaurants and shops, and still attend the markets. My son Tom goes to Bray and I go to Dublin.’
Ireland’s food artisans are like wandering minstrels, all members of a like-minded troupe without protection to keep the wolves from the door. The wolves in this instance being high running costs, time-consuming bureaucracy, inadequate or costly markets, and no funds for marketing strategies and promotional devices.
Yet the Department of Agriculture, Bord Bia and Teagasc love the idea of artisan producers so much they have included them in Food Harvest 2020 – a ‘smart, green’ programme designed to take Irish food out into the big world and secure jobs.
Bord Bia has been given the task to secure more shelf space for artisan and small producers while the good bureaucrats in Dublin insist that ‘small producers are benefiting from local sourcing policies from the major supermarkets and convenience groups’.
The key to this ‘valuable transition from market and independent sales into multiple retail’ is the capability of small companies to grow and expand into larger companies.
For Silke Cropp the idea of running a small factory defeats the object of artisan production. That and the cost of expansion, not easy when cash flow is paramount.
‘We tried to sell to SuperValu in Cavan, Clones and Ballinamore, their paying policy of 90 days doesn’t work for us.’
Neither does the Artisan Food Market at Bloom run by Bord Bia. It might provide a platform for marketing, promotion and sales and reach over 110,000 consumers, but it requires a cash outlay the Cropps cannot afford.
The authors of Food Harvest 2020 appear to have missed the point about artisan food production.
‘We are an endangered species,’ says Silke Cropp. ‘The artisan is always going to be quite a small producer. Artisan to me means hand-made using raw and first class quality ingredients, putting expensive stuff together to make something as best as you can, that people will talk about as something fabulous you can only get in Cavan or Kerry or Waterford.’
‘Quality is such an obvious thing,’ says Kevin Sheridan in his role as chair of the Taste Council, a Bord Bia initiative. ‘It brings the producer and the customer together in a unique way, especially when people are able to taste the product.
‘One of the first things I organised with the Taste Council was an organoleptic seminar for Irish cheese-makers. We got them together to talk about taste, nobody else was talking about the quality of taste.’
This, he says, is because we do not value our food. ‘We are told we must buy food cheaper, we go for the cheapest food and this is not replicated in other sectors.
‘Our food culture is of utmost importance economically, socially, culturally, so let’s get a coordinated approach to look at it, to grow it. That’s how seriously it needs to be taken because it benefits every area, employment, rural development, tourism, health, the landscape, our environment, it is so important on every level.
‘Somebody needs to say, hold on. If you take Food Harvest 2020 to its conclusion, with its one vision mindset of Irish agriculure and an economic model focused on commodity export, you’ll have twenty landowners owning the whole of Ireland with mass food production … ‘
Aldi, Lidl and Tesco have been actively promoting Irish produce but seem unable to know how to sell artisanal foods.
It is not unusual to see it languishing on the reduced shelf.
The Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme with its Origin Ireland logo made little difference, not surprising when imported produce cost less.
When Irish artisanal cheese costs around €30 a kilo only a cheese connoisseur will appreciate the effort to get it into the supermarkets. According to Kevin Sherdian this is a crucial problem. Irish people in general are not being educated to appreciate food of quality, and do not recognise it when they see it. Saying it is Irish and home-made is not enough.
Despite their perceived loyalty to Irish produce, supermarkets are not interested in artisan and small-scale produce. ‘There is no benefit to them selling branded products,’ he says. ‘The only reason they do is to control the supply chain.’
The hand-made, small-scale nature of artisan food production works for and against the consumer. The relatively high cost of artisan cheese compares unfavourably with the mass-produced hard and soft pasteurised cheeses found on supermarket shelves.
The real difference is quality, as anyone who buys continental European artisan and specialist cheeses knows. Another difference is state support and cooperative collectivity. It does not come with caveats about growth and expansion.
In Switzerland 58 dairies of various sizes make the semi-hard raw milk Appenzeller cheese. They benefit from a collective distribution and marketing vehicle appenzeller.ch that sells and promotes the cheese and gives them an adequate livelihood. On top of that Switzerland Cheese Marketing, a state board, targets foreign markets through vigorous promotions, including specialist media trips.
Silke Crupp asks whether artisan food producers should be thought of as artists and be awarded tax exemptions. ‘Artists work tax-free and as a person who doesn’t really make money as such I think the artisan producer should be protected in much the same way to be relaxed to do what we do best because we do something for the image of Ireland … ‘
She knows it will take much more. Thirty years in the business has taught her that.
Critics of Food Harvest 2020 and the direction big business is taking Irish food production are few and far between, and Kevin Sheridan wonders what can be done to raise the profile of genuine small-scale production.
‘There is a big fault in this rush to grow,’ he says. ‘We need diversity but instead of trying to make one cheese company ten times bigger, we need ten cheese companies. By its nature small food production is labour intensive and therefore creates more jobs.’
This is obvious in countries like Italy and Switzerland, he says. ‘Countries with strong food cultures value local products because they see it as who they are so there is room for quality produce.
‘To shape our food culture without the supermarkets is not impossible but it can’t be done without them. The biggest problem is not innovation, it is route to market and you need to create demand.’
When distributors want to impose high mark-ups and supermarkets prefer to pay after 90 days, direct selling online and via market stalls relies on reputation, which in turn is influenced by image.
‘There is still a view of farmhouse cheese-makers as being backward,’ says Kevin Sheridan about Irish food policy since the mid-1990s. ‘Raw milk cheese is seen as regressive and not super hygenic.’
Which is an illogical argument when raw milk cheese is as common as grass in continental Europe. ‘It’s not about logic,’ he says. ‘If you look at what has damaged the European food industry over the past ten years the root cause has been mass food production, not small food production.’
Food Harvest 2020 see a small role for artisan food but it is obvious to Sheridan that nothing will happen unless the small producers take the initiative themselves.
‘Probably the hardest people to get to work together unfortunately are the food artisans because they are so individualistic, but it is also hard to see how they could do it on their own.
‘Certainly small coops have to be part of the potential for the growth of this industry, there is plenty of room for development. The food community need to come together because we are looking at only one model for food production.’
Advocates of artisan production agree that a visual infrastructure needs to be built – with advertising, road and street signs, and maps indicating where the food producers, food fairs and markets, food tours and food demonstrations are to be found – allied to promotional campaigns that put artisan food firmly in the public eye.
Easier said than done.
Nevertheless the state is worried about the use of the term ‘artisan’.
‘For small businesses in particular, such terms are a means of communicating the genuine differences between the foods they offer and mainstream commercial foodstuffs.
‘Marketing terms are designed to resonate with consumers. However, when marketing terms are used incorrectly they have the potential to mislead.’
Maybe that is the answer. Send the food harvest abroad and keep the artisan harvest at home, and make sure that large producers and chain retailers know the difference.
You can’t mistake Silke Cropp’s unique cheese as anything but artisanal, it’s as pretty as her idyllic setting in rural Cavan.
First published under a different title in July 2014