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Stories circulated through the cheese industry in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic about the cheeses at risk of being lost to Covid-19. “Animals go on producing milk, regardless of whether there’s a pandemic going on,” says Clare Jackson of Slate Cheese. “The cheese in maturing rooms was ripening, and you can’t stop that process happening.”
But for Clare, the story that brought to life the pain that the sector was facing was the decision by Innes Cheese to close shop. “That was it – a couple of generations of cheesemaking disappearing, which was such a loss,” Clare says. “When that happened, it really scared us into action.”
Slate stepped up to add its voice to those calling for the public to support Britain’s farmhouse cheesemakers. Although footfall in the shop was down, Slate’s online sales were keeping the business going, and the team made the decision to support the Got Milk Fund, a crowdfunding initiative aimed at saving Britain’s dairy industry. The Fund ensures surplus milk does not go to waste by redistributing dairy supplies to those in need. Slate donated £1 for every online order it received in June and urged online customers to add their own donation at checkout.
Slate was also supportive of industry initiatives like the British Cheese Weekender, an event by the Academy of Cheese to raise the profile of farmhouse cheeses. “It was a brilliant weekend, and it really got people talking about British cheese,” Clare said.
What struck Clare most about the struggles that the cheese industry faced throughout the pandemic was the waste – not just of ingredients, but the possibility of wasting the care that cheesemakers put into their cheese, and wiping away a great part of the country’s heritage.
“[Considering] the time and the care that artisan cheesemakers in this country put into making and maturing their cheese, the thought of that waste happening just horrified us,” Clare says. “The whole heritage of cheesemaking in this country, and making sure that that didn’t get lost, was really important to us.”
Back in 2017 Clare and her father John Ormerod opened Slate Cheese to feed their passion for high quality, farmhouse cheese, and it’s since become a personal mission to continue spreading the word for the industry. “For us, it’s about helping people to discover cheese,” she explains. “It’s still a process of discovery for us. We have that excitement and enthusiasm and passion for cheese – particularly British cheese – and want to share that with people.”
Showing customers the differences in the tastes and textures is one of Clare’s great joys. “There’s such a difference between cheese that you can buy in supermarkets and the artisan farmhouse cheeses that you can get in shops like ours, and there’s a real process of highlighting that difference.” Throughout the pandemic and beyond, she aims to keep doing just that.
While some farmhouse cheeses were lost in 2020, other cheesemakers forged ahead with new releases. “We’re now seeing a couple of new cheeses come onto the British scene, so it feels more hopeful going forward,” Clare says. Slate is keen to highlight a new entrant on the Suffolk cheese scene: St Helena, a washed rind semi-firm cheese made by Blake Bowden in collaboration with Julie Cheyney of St Jude Cheese. “All credit to them for having pushed that forward in keeping with their goal of developing that cheese during a tough year,” Clare says.
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