Back in April, I started recording a zoom interviews about the impact of Covid -19 on Irish food*. The first was this one with Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith, producer of St. Tola Goat Cheese in Clare and a well known face in Irish artisan food. Sadly, we are back in a similar place now, where much of what we discussed is relevant again. With foodservice virtually shut down, cheesemakers and other small and artisan producers are losing a huge portion of their turnover. Being able to get their product to the public is vital.
“Now more than ever, we needed people to be very conscious of what they were buying. Not just talk about supporting Irish, but to buy Irish”
A #GreenFriday campaign has recently been started up by the Irish Food Champions group appealing to people to stem the tide of Black Friday promotions and instead focus on supporting Irish companies and buying Irish, especially Irish food, at a time when the Irish hospitality industry and the many farmers, fishers and artisans who supply them are really suffering. Siobhan echoes this, but also makes an important point – to focus on quality over quantity. “People buy too much food and everything else for Christmas”, says Siobhan, “less is more. Buy less, but buy it from small local producers”.
Siobhan sells her wonderful cheese online at www.st-tola.ie. I can’t recommend it enough. St. Tola raw milk ash log is one of my all time favourite cheeses. Siobhan deserves support, but luckily she also makes wonderful cheese, so it’s no sacrifice to support her business. Speaking to Siobhan again in recent days she emphasised how much a small change in how people shop, and putting more emphasis on buying from small Irish producers, can make a huge difference not just in their lives but to the Irish economy and its people.
There are hundreds of Siobhan’s out there. They fill our lives with colour and flavour; they make our food and our country better. You may enjoy their produce when you are out in restaurants. But while restaurants are closed, they are suffering. So if you can, buy from them now. Or next time you look for them, they may not be there anymore.
“It happened overnight”
In this 30 minute interview, Siobhan talks about how her rural food business was impacted by Covid-19, how she had to quickly adapt to get her product to customers when she lost 70% of her turnover overnight, and how she and other producers got the word out to the public and looked for their support. She also talks about what has changed for good, and what lessons we need to take from this crisis in terms of how we approach food. As Siobhan says, we’re in an era of “cheap food, cheap travel, cheap lives at this stage”, and we know this has to change.
“Mother nature is telling us ‘you need to wake-up here'”
My favourite part of this conversation is at the end, when Siobhan talks about some of the big picture lessons from Covid-19; the wake-up call in terms of what we are doing to the planet and how we need to change. The change she suggests is actually pretty simple: be more like our grandparents, says Siobhan, the less we travel for our food (or the less it travels to get to us) the better it is for our health, our economy and our environment. Then her brilliant and very sensible call to ‘Be Tribal’, think about our communities, and bring the ‘club and county mindset’ of sports to our food culture.
If you want to jump into different topics in the interview, here is what we discussed and at what point you can find them:
Opening minutes – Siobhan talks about the immediate impact of Covid-19 on her business back in March and how she adapted.
c. 7 mins in – CAIS – the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association response promoting farmhouse cheese direct to consumer, importance of cooperation and networks; being proactive and resilient; the importance of conversations and honesty, vulnerability and mutual support.
c. 16 mins in – Silver linings? The growth in the local food market and will it last. Has Covid-19 been a wake-up call?
c. 20 mins – lessons from the crisis; new routes to market and diversifying, what changes will be lasting…and the joy of working with chefs
c. 25 mins to end – how businesses need to adapt, what supports are needed, and what can the general public do; Siobhan’s call to be more ‘tribal’ when it comes to our food, to have a GAA mindset! The big picture lessons from Covid and what needs to change.
*You can find a segment of another interview in this series on the impacts of Covid-19 on Irish food in an earlier blog here, where I speak to Jennifer McConnell of Irish Seedsavers.