Getting to Know You

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A year or two after that, an opportunity arose to work with Eadmund on a project.

We had moved our wholesale department to a new site just south of the Thames.  The new premises bordered on a nocturnal fruit and vegetable market was the only remaining aspect of a once a thriving produce selling area known as London’s Larder.  Now, it was largely empty.  Its spaces were used for parking cars but the market structure and empty warehouses around it was still impressively Victorian.  It just cried out to have food stalls in it.

I was at a career ceiling.  I had added being the assistant Mail Order manager to my list of roles but there wasn’t enough work in the department for it to be anything more than holiday cover, a day a week and then an even more seasonal and intense Christmas sales period than when I’d worked retail.

I had appreciated the support, cheering on and hugs even more than ever.  I had seen Jack less than ever.

I was also at the end of my tether with matters rota-related.  It was like trying to solve a huge Sudoku puzzle and it just didn’t appeal to the way my mind worked.  My attempts to solve the Sudoku weren’t good enough for the new shop manager, James (Isla had taken on HR) and he didn’t hold back with his criticism.  I announced my intention to give up the rota and train someone new.  I didn’t tell anyone but it was the first step of my plan to hand in my notice.

Eadmund needed someone to help with a plan to develop the market as a thriving food area again: to call in stall holders, to take advantage of momentum created by open warehouse days the local traders had held and a Food Lovers Fair that had generated great publicity and introduced some amazing food producers from all over the country to this atmospheric corner of London and its wrought iron Victorian market building.  The fair had been exhilarating.  The iron and glass structure echoed to the sounds of traders selling food and all of the food was superlative.  The space came alive.  At the end of our long retailing days, we cheesemongers mingled in the local pub, with other traders from the market.  We were all buzzing.  Many drunkenly enthusiastic conversations were had, starry eyed about the potential for restoring it to a full time food market.

Eadmund had a plan.  The open warehouse days had been fine but now we needed a bigger market.  A monthly market.  In time, a weekly market.  He always suffered from having more ideas than there is time to execute them, so he needed someone to put his plan into action.  Would I be interested in working with the best food producers in the country to establish the best selection of produce in the UK at a market?  Would I?  Is the Pope a Catholic?

From being miserable and failing in my job, I suddenly had a lifeline and one with hugely exciting possibilities.  Eadmund and I met and worked together for a day each week.  I loved the job.  I loved working with him.  We worked extremely harmoniously together.  I was doing something I could succeed in and succeed I did.  I was learning all the time and I began to blossom again.

We started to get to know each other a little.

Christmas

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In the cheese retail world, Christmas is a big deal.

‘We will take more money in the week before Christmas’ Eadmund told the assembled new mongers as part of a special Christmas training session, ‘Than in the whole of July and August put together.’

We’d be asked to work longer hours and more shifts than usual and we would be depended on.  We were to look after ourselves and be on time because with the extra pressure it would be easy to get ill.

What were we about to go through?

‘Christmas is fun too though,’ I was told, ‘People who normally work in the office like Eadmund and Catherine and Jacob are on the shop all the time which makes it a bit of a party atmosphere.’

‘We have a competition about who can sell the most sides of smoked salmon.  Oh yes, we sell smoked salmon and it is the best smoked salmon you will ever have in your life.’

It actually is, incidentally.

Turns out they weren’t exaggerating.  It was as full on, intense, exhausting and exhilarating as they said.  I had never seen so many people queuing up just to buy cheese.  In the rain even.  They waited from twenty minutes to half an hour and the queue stretched all the way past the clothes shop next door and further down the street.  They clothes shop even had to put out an A board to remind our queue to leave their doorway accessible for their own customers.

It was a baptism of fire but addictively enjoyable too.

After waiting patiently for half an hour, we had to give our customers the very best service of our lives; be more welcoming, friendly and helpful than ever.  In the pursuit of being ever better, it generated energy.  There were eight of us packed behind the tiny counter – you couldn’t afford to be shy as arms, legs and torsos jostled past you on all sides.  It was like a complicated dance to keep out of each other’s way but somehow it worked.

It was also my first experience of working with Eadmund.  He was positive, joking, encouraging.  He made everyone up their game.  We worked non-stop and he made it fun.  He created systems where we were too tired and busy to know how to make order out of chaos.  He looked out for us, making each person take 5 minutes for a coffee and a sit down when we looked like we were flagging or getting stressed out.  At the end of the week, he bought everyone champagne because we’d smashed sales targets.  In the tactile atmosphere, with so many people squeezed into a small space, he gave bear hugs that seemed entirely natural, lifted your exhausted spirits and made you feel like trying even harder.  And most importantly he said a heartfelt, genuine thank you for all our hard work.  I felt valued and important.  I learned so much, I had just packed a lifetime’s experience into one week.

Oh yes, and I won the smoked salmon challenge.  It might have been cheating that I also bought one myself.  My prize?  Another side of salmon.  Get in!

At home, my friends and boyfriend hardly saw me.  It was as if I’d disappeared for a month.  I got in late, ate and slept but otherwise I was at work.  It meant that January was an odd month.  Last thing Christmas Eve I’d headed back to Marple for rest, recovery and roast goose.  After Christmas, I headed back to London, reflecting a little ruefully that a 4 weeks per year holiday allowance is a shock to the system when you’ve been used to school and university holidays.  I was still tired.  I missed the energy and the fun of the pre-Christmas work.  I missed the extra boost and special feeling of having Eadmund and the gang on the shop floor with us.  At home, with little energy and coming down from my Christmas adrenaline high, I had to re-build a relationship with my rather shell-shocked boyfriend who was feeling severely neglected.  It was hard work.

The following Christmas, was even more intense.  By this time, I’d decided to take on a bit of administrative responsibility.  Catherine had left the company.  Eadmund was more present in the business and as ever, life seemed more fun when he was around.  He was around a lot more, in fact, because Erin, the retail manager, had also left and before her replacement, Isla could start work.  Consequently it was left to Eadmund among others to instil in her the ethos of the company: honesty at all times with customers and the mission and vocation to preserve, encourage and develop what was left of Britain’s artisan, farmhouse cheese industry.

As autumn rolled around , I was entrusted with the staff rota.  It was not a natural fit.  Trying to make the Christmas shift patterns requested by the department managers fit to the number of staff available was impossible and I was sinking under the weight of it.  I had already put myself down for so many shifts to fill the gaps that I was working 6 and 7 day weeks and it was only the end of October.  I was spending 12 hours a day on my rota admin days trying my best to make it fit.

Isla, as shop manager, refused to accept my compromises.  It was her first Christmas and the pressure was on her to deliver an organised shop that was well staffed enough to get the sales.

She, Eadmund and I sat down and thrashed it out together.  He and I had worked on it for a day beforehand and where I felt like an abject failure, he was kind and helpful and most importantly, with the benefit of many years’ experience, he knew we’d find a way to compromise.  He managed to find solutions where I hadn’t been able to and supported some of the ones I had found.  He didn’t think I’d been a failure; just that it was a damn difficult job.  I almost wept with relief.

The three of us then worked at it solidly, well into the night.  At about 9pm after 12 hours we hit the single malt whisky Eadmund kept by his desk, a present from a Scottish cheesemonger.  We didn’t hit it hard but just enough to give the evening a slightly warm glow.  Later, we tottered off into the night, not reeling from alcohol but from yet another mind bending 14 hour day with the satisfaction of knowing we’d finally sorted it.

That year I disappeared from my boyfriend for 2 months.

The next big love in my life

The cheese that started it all.

The cheese that started it all.

‘I don’t want to eat in any of these places.’

Gia and I stared out of the bus windows.  My sister had come down to visit me for a few days and we had been out in London for the day and were looking for a restaurant.  We weren’t much impressed.

‘Oh I know, let’s get off here and go to Carluccio’s for salami.  We can change onto the 38 and then go home and have a picnic.’

We walked up through Covent Garden market, past street entertainers and the throngs of people queueing for the Hard Rock café and northwards past the tube station.  Gia and I have a long standing love for Italy, having holidayed in the same house in the Abruzzo every year since she was born.  As a consequence, Italian cured meats and olives are not only tasty in their own right but are also a nostalgic reminder of sun drenched days, friends who have watched us grow up and treat us as extended family, relaxation and happiness.  We made a beeline for Carluccio’s, selected our cured meat purchases and carried on towards Shaftesbury Avenue.

For some reason at one of the road junctions, we looked up towards Seven Dials and saw the cheese shop.

‘Hey, let’s go there!  It’d be like the shops in Boulogne!’

Part of the cherished family tradition had been that as both our parents taught, they too had long summer holidays and we usually went out to Italy for at least 6 weeks every year.  My Dad taught Italian so for him it was invaluable in keeping in practice.  We needed a car when we were out there and low cost airlines weren’t anything more than a glint in Michael O’Leary’s eye so we drove out, putting the car onto a train at Boulogne and then taking the train on through to Milan where we arrived for breakfast the following morning.  In the hours we had to kill between the time the ferry arrived and the time the train left, we had got into the habit of buying a particularly superior picnic for the train: Camemberts, Chevres, Baguettes, Celeri Remoulade, Carrots Rapees, Tartes aux Fraises and, when we were considered old enough, Normandy Cider.

We had never seen a cheese shop in the UK that looked even remotely like the fromageries of Boulogne.  Cheese in the UK seemed to be kept away from customers, behind glass, vacuum packed in plastic, its personality and character suppressed.  Not in this place.

The door creaked open, we entered the richly cheese scented, cellar cool air.  We had no idea what to buy.  An enormous slate counter stretched in front of us, piled high with every sort of cheese our hearts could desire.  All around the shop walls, shelves were bursting with cloth wrapped huge truckles of what I would later recognise as Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire.  We scoured the counter looking for a name we recognised from our French cheese purchasing that we could identify and purchase and we found nothing.

A cheery man of about 6 foot tall with short cropped blonde hair greeted us and tried to get us to try something.  We needed a minute to take the experience in and, being British, we were reluctant to say yes.

‘Go ahead and look,’ the blonde man I would later call Jacob said.  He turned to one of his colleagues.

‘The Wigmore is escaping again.’

A girl in a white chefs jacket and white wellies emerged from behind the counter and picked up a wooden board with the offending Wigmore cheese.  It was liquid and was heading off the board and onto the floor.  It looked great.

She brought it back behind the counter and noticing that we were following its progress with our eyes, Jacob offered us a taste.  It was vegetal, cauliflower-like even, savoury and cheese in liquid form.

‘It’s a bit over the top to be honest,’ he said, ‘I prefer it when it’s not gone quite that far.’

We loved it.  We bought a whole quarter of a pound.

I now look back on that purchase with a modicum of embarrassment.  We bought three very small pieces of cheese.  I paid for them with a cheque, which I now know is the most fiddly way to pay imaginable.  These days I rarely buy anything under 500g of cheese – if you’re going to buy cheese, you may as well seriously BUY CHEESE.  I spent under a tenner and I took ages about it too.

If this was in any way frustrating to Jacob (and in retrospect, I suspect it was), he gave absolutely no sign of it whatsoever.  He was helpfulness personified.  Whatever we wanted to taste, we could.  No need to say thank you, it was just what they were there for.  We left with our 3 small pieces of cheese in a little white plastic bag and resolved to return.  We had to bring our Dad in there.  We now realised that we didn’t recognise any of the cheese names because all those very many cheeses were all British or Irish!  Not a French one among them. Remembering my father’s laments over the no longer being able to buy the Tasty Lancashire or unpasteurised Stilton of his childhood, we knew he would enjoy this shop.

The picnic was very satisfying by the way.

My graduation, my parents wedding anniversary, a belated 21st birthday bash for me and an early 18th birthday bash for Gia was held at the end of the year.  As a special treat, we decided to try out the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant at the time.  Since we were in the area, we took my dad to the cheese shop.  It was Saturday, the place was heaving but as he spent a full 45 minutes in there tasting everything and spending a considerable amount of money, we hung around at the doorway so other customers could actually get inside.  We were a group of 6 (including Jack).  That’s all the people the shop could fit on the customer side of the counter.  As it turned out, this meant we had plenty of time to read and re-read the notice in the window that said they were looking for cheese loving staff.

I had graduated by this point and was hoping that inspiration would strike me as to what I wanted to do.  The only thing I did know is that as the child of two teachers, I wasn’t going to follow them into the teaching profession.  My dad was counting the days to his retirement already and sadly he still had several years to go.  I had vaguely voiced the idea of working in a shop just to pay the rent and was hoping that somewhere along the line a blinding revelation would happen and my future career would become clear.

‘Well you could definitely do worse than working here,’ my Mum pointed out.

It was idiosyncratic, characterful, cheery, welcoming, the staff banter indicated that they were all great friends and they were selling some delicious cheeses.  I gave them a call.