The stone cottage shrouded in greenery at the end of the lonely boreen is picture postcard perfect. Raindrops 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 guttural accent.
There is nothing incongruous about this setting in rural Cavan, a few kilometres from the border with Fermanagh. Artisan Ireland requires the EU stamp of approval and, just to prove this point, cheesemaker Silke Cropp explains that an inspector from ‘the department’ is arriving to take away some cheeses for testing.
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 cheesemakers who had invented their own cheeses,’ says Kevin, ‘and we were thinking, are we at a peak, as these people retire are we going to be left with none?’
Now, almost 20 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 handmade.
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 cheesemakers were beginning to make reputations for themselves. 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 chang- ing.
‘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 Co-op 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 Co-op 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.’
‘We are an endangered species,’ she adds sanguinely. ‘The artisan is always going to be quite a small producer. Artisan to me means handmade 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.’
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