Sunday, November 16, 2008

Good-bye, Cheddar!

In a horrendously expensive city like London, why work at a cheese shop for a measly 7 pounds sterling an hour ? For the cheese, of course! And it’s usually free. Nothing makes me happier at the end of my shift than heading out to the Crown for a pint or two and a cigarette with Martin, the upbeat assistant manager, and having my well-used Neal’s Yard Dairy carrier bag filled to the brim with scraps of cheese that can’t be sold, loaves of good bread, like Poulain, that are left over at the end of t he day, sugary Eccles cakes that had fallen on the floor, and small containers of organic whole milk and double cream that expired that day. For a miser like me, with a taste for fine foods, these free goodies are almost reason enough to work at the Dairy.

But there’s a more noble reason: to play a role, albeit a small one, in promoting and thereby protecting nonindustrialized agricultural foods. If I love Cheddar, I’ve got to do my part to help the flavorful ones stick around. Without places like Neal’s Yard Dairy and people like me working there, the only Cheddar we might know would be the plastic-wrapped, bright orange bricks sold in supermarket chains. It would be good-bye to the good stuff.

The availability of exquisite farmstead Cheddars owes a lot to the Real Cheese movement that started in the 1970s in Britain. It rode on the coattails of the Real Ale and Real Bread movements. Without the efforts of these flavor crusaders--or maybe just larger louts with refined taste!--the foods of rural Britain were destined to be lost, replaced by their unvarying and tasteless counterparts on supermarket shelves.

Neal’s Yard Dairy and their employees in white Wellington boots and the cheesemakers from the British Isles who supply the shop and probably wear regular black Wellies are just a few players in a now greater and slightly more organized food movement. To anyone interested in promoting an alternative and more sustainable food supply, there’s membership in Slow Food International, shares in Community-Supported Agriculture, shopping at farmer’s markets, and reading books about eating locally. These organizations and consumer practices can throw a lifeline to good food from the land, to the producers of this good food, and to the land itself.

These movements are making a difference. Pubs throughout London proudly advertise that they serve real, cask ales. A chef I met last night at the French House in Soho in London, where I drank two glasses of kir in quick session (yes, I know, something French and not English) cooks at a modest pub outside of London and sources meat from only 12 miles away and uses veg that’s in season.

In contrast to these promising changes is the closing of Forfar Dairy in rural Eastern Ontario, not far from Ottawa. I just read about it thanks to Bill and Elise, who are so good about sending me cheese news from Ontario. Forfar Dairy has been around for almost 150 years. Although it has turned a profit since at least 2000, when the current family took it over, it’s had to close because of rising fuel and milk costs and new provincial government regulations. With the passage of the Nutrient Management Act, Forfar would have to build a storage tank for its whey or find an alternative method for disposing it. Currently it spreads whey on nearby fields as fertilizer. Even though this disposal method has caused no problems, the provincial government won’t allow them to continue it, for the sake of protecting groundwater. Now I know, especially in light of the fatal problems the U.S. recently had with spinach, we should be very careful about what agricultural waste might end up in our groundwater, but small places like Forfar, which have no history of negligence, aren’t really the ones who are threatening the food supply. But the passage of this law has guaranteed to put small dairies in jeopardy.

I visited Forfar with Bill and Elise on our way to their lake cottage (see my entry on cheese curds) and found that the quality of their Cheddars shared little resemblance with the ones at Neal’s Yard Dairy; they were only slightly better than the ones in supermarkets. (But their cheese curds were worth arriving early at their retail shop, to get them fresh, milky, and squeaky.) Just the same, I am sorry to see it go. Their closure marks another unfortunate victory for big business and government’s protection of it. Who will now help the remaining small dairies of Ontario, if, in fact, there are any left? As places like Forfar disappear, so too does part of Canada’s dairying history, as well as their sustainable farming practices. If there are no pigs in the area to eat the discarded whey, what makes more sense than spreading it on fields? Sadly, Ontario’s government believes that expensive storage units do.

So, so long Forfar. I hope your loss will inspire a similar real cheese movement in Canada. In the meantime, in my white Wellington boots, I will continue to be a minor crusader for small cheesemakers, and with my sturdy clear plastic bag in hand, I will continue to be a scavenger of their fine cheeses.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

Diana! I'm catching up on your blog and guess what!??! I've been to The Crown too! I love that part of London! I had my first proper English pint there too! Too funny! (Neal is my brother's name and I really really wish I knew there was a cheese shop there b.c. we both adore Cheddar too - would have made a great gift!) Now I know!