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Sunday Time Article on Irish Cheese "Blessed Are The Cheese Makers"

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The Farmhouse cheese industry if worth €12m – and growing numbers of us are brabbing a large slice of it.

There is a story, part of Irish cheesemaking lore, about the debut of Milleens – the creation that signalled the start of the Irish farmhouse cheese renaissance in the 1970s.

A semi-soft washed-rind cheese with a complex range of flavours, from floral to mushroom, Milleens was – and perhaps still is – the furthest think you could imagine from a humdrum block of pre-packed industrial cheddar.

The cheese was first made by Veronica and Norman Steele on their small farm on the Berara peninsula, in west Cork, in 1978. One evening, a sample given to a chef friend made it’s way onto the menu of the Blue Bull restaurant in Sneem, Co.Kerry.

It was tasted by Declan Ryan, a chef at the then Michelin starred Arbutus Lodge hotel in Cork, who happened to be visiting. Ryan loved it, and the following night it made an equally big impression in Myrtle Allen, a leading advocate of local Irish food, from Ballymaloe House in Shangarry, Co.Cork. With such infulential fans on board, word spread quickly, and other west Cork cheeses followed. An industry was born.

Veronica Steele may tell you her cheesemaking began because “there was nothing interesting to eat” and because she and her husband needed to do something to store the milk from their lone cow – but other factors were at work elsewhere.

In Farmhouse Cheeses of Ireland, published last year, Glynn Anderson gives three reasons for the emergence of Irish Cheesemaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Irish people started travelling abroad more often and they discovered “Smelly Cheese”, while intrepid Europeans who settled in the rugged west of Ireland brought continental cheesemaking influences with them. The introduction of milk quotas in the early 1980s also caused many farmers to look to cheesemaking to add value to surplus milk.

In a piece she wrote during the 1980s, Steele remembers talking to Ryan about Milleens in 1978.

“I confided in him that, in 20 years time, Ireland would have a genuine regional cheese industry to be proud of” she says. Thirty years later, the sector has developed significantly. Though it accounts for less then 1% of the cheese produced here – total production is about 1,000 tons – the breadth and quality of farmhouse cheese is still impressive for a young industry on a small island. About 60 registered farmhouse producers make 200 cheeses, with world-class examples among them. The crefting of early, pioneering cheeses has been passes on to a second generation, as is the case with Milleens, now made by Steele’s son, Quinlan. We also have the Irish Cheese awards now in their third year.

The products themselves range greatly in style. The more unusual ones include the spicy Boyne Valley Blue, a raw-milk blue goats cheese made by Peter Thomas in Co.Louth, and Dillidkus, a semi-hard, washed-rind seaweed cheese made by Maja Binder of Dingle Peninsula Cheese Co.Kerry.

In Portlaw, Co.Waterford, Anna Leveque makes Triskel Pyramid, and ash-covered goat’s cheese, while in Toonsbridge, Co.Cork, buffalo mozzarella is produced by Toby Simmonds and John Lynch from their asian water buffalo.

The producers are as varied as their cheeses, and they rang from small-scale, one-person operations to international soccess stories. Most remain small, with their products being sold locally or with some lvel of national distribution.

Kevin Sheridan, of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers, cites the factors that make Irish cheese of such high quality.

“Our Farms are still very small, and farmed in a very traditional way” he says.

“Our mild climate means that the cows are on frensh grass for most of the year, which contributes to the quality of the milk. Our cheesemakers don’t have to bear the weight of a long tradition of cheesemaking, which allows them to be very creative.”

Last yea, Bord Bia valued the farmhouse cheese sector at more then €12m, with annual esports worth €4.5m. It sees exports as key to growth in the industry, but there are challenges.

Cashel Blue was first made in Co Tipperary in 1984, on a farm owned by Jane and Louis Grubb. About 250 tons of Cashel Blue are sold each year, with much of the Cheese being exported. The business employs about 20 staff, but the product is still made in a traditional way on the family farm.

“Farmhouse cheese is not quantified by scale. We’re farmers, we employ our neighbours, and we’ve grown within the community” says Sarah Furno, the Grubbs’ Daughter.

The quality of the family’s products was acknowledged when Crozier Blue, their sheep’s milk cheese, and Cashel Blue won a gold and silver respectively at the World Cheese Awards this year.

Awards have also come the way of Helen Finnegan, a former community worker who established Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese in Co.Kilkenny in 2004. she has one full-time member of staff and employs others on a seasonal masis.

Finnegan uses mild from local sources to make products such as Kilree goat’s Cheese, named supreme champion at the British Cheese awards last year. She is frank about the challenges faced by a small-scale producer.

“If you want to make your business viable, you have to get a certain volume,” she says, “It’s difficult because the product needs to be matured, so you have expenses up front and money tied up in stock.”

David Tiernan, who has made the highly regarded gruyere-style Glebe Brethan on his farm in Dunleer, Co Louth, since 2004, remains a largely one-man show. He manages the fam, milks his Montbelairde cows and, during the summer, makes two 45kg wheels of his raw-milk cheese a day. These are matured for up to 18 months.

“We would have to double or treble production to pay another person,” Tiernan says, “if we increased production, it would be harder to keep quality high.”

Tiernan says that a significant amount of paperwork is  associated with commercial cheesemaking. “In this country, there are 100 people encouraging you to get off your backside, but 200 people trying to crucify you with red tape and legislation,” he says.

Another problem for the industry is the lack of legally binding definition of farmhouse cheese in Ireland. “You could have imported cheese, produced on a large scale but cut in Ireland, being labelled as Irish farmhouse cheese,” Furno says.

It is something that Bord Bia’s taste council, a voluntary representitive group, has been working on for some time. Comng up with a definition that people can agree on will be a long process.

What of the dream Steele had of a regional Irish cheese industry to be proud of?

“It hasn’t achieved its full potential yet. There are still places to go with it,” she says.

Veronica also has places to go. She recently visited Lalibela in Ethiopia as part of a charity initiative, passing on her cheesemaking skills to the locals.

“The fact that Milleens started out with mild of one cow made us comfortable with each other,” Veronica says. “The cheese they made was very good, so perhaps it’s the beginning of another dream.”

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on 16 Dec 2012

By Corinna Hardgrave

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