Working at Neal’s Yard Dairy you find you spend a lot of time talking and tasting cheese (a hardship!) but also discussing food more widely. Being surrounded by so many passionate and food-orientated people is what many of us appreciate about the company and the wider food community we belong to. From talking to chefs about how they can best feature cheese on their menu, to helping shop customers find the right cheese for their dinner parties, to discussing what’s for lunch, we are passionate about food. Most importantly, we are a company of eaters. Across the business we are encouraged to eat cheese but also get to snack on toast smothered in butter and enjoy lunches made from deliveries of fruit and vegetables and dry goods.
This personal and professional love of food is why writer Clare Finney’s latest book Hungry Heart: A story of food and love resonated so much with us. It charts the meals and recipes throughout Clare’s life that have shaped her and investigates the way in which food influences our relationships with others. From disordered eating, to communal eating, comfort eating and everything in between, Hungry Heart contextualises food within Clare’s life and encouraged us to do the same as we discussed it around a cheeseboard – naturally.
Clare writes that ‘for the most part Hungry Heart is largely born of my experiences, interwoven with conversations I’ve had with friends, fellow food writers and family members along the way.
Traversing from Grandma’s hotplate through my parents’ divorce, I’ve explored the formative influence of family in what we eat, when we eat and who we tend to eat with. I’ve looked at friendships – for, in an age where personal and professional pressures have reduced the majority of our interactions to the Internet, we’re increasingly combining IRL face time with meals. I’ve touched on religion: not just feast days, which unite those with faith (and without) around the table, but tabooed foods: the sacrifice of which marks out the devout from the non-believer.
As we grow up, food becomes not just something we’re dished up but something we choose for ourselves: a means of identity and self-expression akin to MacBooks, Nikes and canvas tote bags. I’ve tried to explore the myriad ways we find, define and relate to ourselves through food, as well as to others, and unearth why so many of us still balk at the idea of eating alone. I’ve looked at dating, of course – the cooking, the ordering in, the ‘You have that, I insist’ dance of culinary courtship that will at best end in matrimony, at worst a great anecdote. And I have tried to articulate the role food and drink play in the workplace: the strange sense of intimacy that comes with knowing your colleague’s coffee order, the importance of getting a round in, and the power of a halved original glazed Krispy Kreme to transform a colleague into a friend'.
She generously features us in the book too:
‘A few years ago I started doing some work for the cheese retailer Neal’s Yard Dairy, and was struck by how big and well equipped the kitchen is in their head office in Bermondsey. I commented on it to one of the directors, who told me that every day team members take turns to cook lunch, then sit down and feast together at the long, wooden table occupying the centre of the room. It was vital to how they worked, he said: on a practical level, by boosting communication between different departments; but on a personal level too, by ensuring each employee feels valued and can foster meaningful friendships. As a result Neal’s Yard Dairy has always felt more like a community than a company – even to outsiders like myself, who never partook of the company lunch but has always been treated to meetings over cheese.
It is difficult to measure the impact the pandemic-fuelled rise in working from home has had on our professional relationships; to know just how much closer to colleagues we’d be now if we’d continued to drink and eat with them. Much was written during the course of Covid about the absence of ‘watercooler chat’, a catch-all term for conversation that happens in the office and over food and drink. In these liminal spaces around the kettle, Krispy Kremes or indeed the literal water cooler, small talk can lead to bigger discussions which researchers have identified can result in colleagues helping each other to destress, or work through a problem. Mug by mug, original glazed by original glazed, biscuit by biscuit they build and cement friendships between colleagues – which leads to better staff retention long term. Indeed, so significant was water cooler conversation deemed, some companies even tried to replicate it remotely using hastily invented apps called things like WaterCooler and Donut; yet they were largely unsuccessful. Such spontaneous moments of collection in areas of transition are, by definition, almost impossible to design.’
Recounting a time when a friend orchestrated a bidding war over publishing a book manuscript, Clare writes that the friend ‘knew that the conversations [with food] are richer, the tangents more explorative, the criticisms more constructive and the compliments more fulsome in the presence of a decent meal. Though commonly derided and rarely welcomed, the business lunch or dinner works a magic that cannot be replicated without food and drink. It is more contrived than the water cooler chat, in that both its occurrence and purpose are planned in advance; but the course of conversation is inevitably shaped by the courses served. No matter the intention or action of the diners, the arrival of the bread, the presentation of the wine, the perusing of the menu all have the potential to create common ground or break and dispel any existing tension’.
We’re glad that Clare agrees with our philosophy of putting food at the centre of everything. It’s why we always meet around a cheeseboard and why we still eat together every day.
You can find Hungry Heart: A story of food and love here. You can also keep up to date with Clare’s writing by following her on Instagram @finneyclare.