Aoife Carrigy delves into the surprisingly short but action-packed history of Irish farmhouse cheese, to hunt out the best for your delectation
Saturday 12 March 2022
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"We are maybe the most unlikely multicultural food culture, but there it is.”
I'm chatting to Kevin Sheridan of Sheridans Cheesemongers about the Irish farmhouse cheese scene that became the cornerstone upon which a thriving modern Irish food and drink culture was built. “There’s a lovely mix of the family-owned farming tradition, which in Ireland is so much a part of who we are, and then the spark that lit it was that tradition combined with immigrants, whether they be migrants from Dublin to West Cork, or from the Netherlands or Germany or Spain. That's at the root of Irish cheesemaking, that mix, and it continues to this day.”
Kevin is well-placed to talk about Irish cheese. Over three decades, he and his brother Seamus grew their business from a mid-1990’s cheese stall in Galway's Saturday market to become the country’s most respected, influential and ubiquitous speciality food purveyors. The Sheridan brothers have witnessed and helped drive a pace of change in Irish cheesemaking that Kevin describes as "incredibly dynamic and fast-moving and explosive and brilliant”, and that fostered a broader food culture that he finds “mind-blowing” in its swift shape shifting.
“We [Irish] only started making cheese in the 1960s,” Kevin explains. “Before that, there was some cheesemaking in the Big Houses and amongst religious groups, but it was very limited.” Historic records tell us that ancient Irish monasteries had once enjoyed a strong tradition of cheesemaking. By the time a new Republic of Ireland state emerged in the early 20th century, however, butter had long become the commodity of choice for the tiny family-owned mixed farms that epitomised what was, and remains, a quintessentially agricultural country. “Butter was a way of translating milk into something that could be sold” – and one that was more stable, compact and conveniently transportable than cheese.
It was the large-scale creameries who first turned their sights on the commercial potential of cheesemaking, producing factory-made cheddar-style cheese in the 1960s. A decade later, in the late 1970s, a handful of innovators – a heady mix of footloose hippies and free-thinking intellectuals and good-life hunters, marrying (sometimes literally) with grassroots farming families – began to tinker with the prospect of making cheese on or next door to those farms themselves.
These pioneers of Irish farmhouse cheesemaking were largely self-taught, their learnings based on inspiration borrowed from European territorial cheese styles, an intrepid appetite for rabbit-hole adventures in fermentation, and much trial and error. Many were folk who had side-stepped a life of convention to follow a whiff of freedom, most often to West Cork which fast became a hub of the action.
Veronica Steele was a Wittgenstein-reading academic who applied her forensic powers of analysis to decoding fermentation, and devoted much generous energy to sharing those mysteries with her fellow pioneers. Her son Quinlan continues her work on the Atlantic-soaked Beara peninsula today where he still makes Milleens, the pungent washed rind beauty that is the late Veronica’s great legacy.
Dick and Helene Willem had swapped northern European city life for a famine-dilapidated cottage in the townland of Coolea, where their son Dicky still makes the highly acclaimed Coolea Cheese based on a very old Dutch Gouda recipe. Unmissable in its caramel-rich maturity, there’s good reason it scooped Supreme Champion at The British Cheese Awards in 2000, alongside many prestigious awards since.
Giana Ferguson had arrived in Schull with a collie dog and a tent, fallen for a handsome dairy farmer, and dusted down memories of cheesemaking techniques gleaned in her divorcee father's adopted Andalusia. She still makes her assuredly nuanced rind-ripened Gubbeen on her husband’s coastal farm, where their son Fingal Ferguson followed her lead to forge a fine new tradition in Irish charcuterie.
By 1983, there were enough of these family-run endeavours to form the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association, or CÁIS (Irish for cheese), whose website (irishcheese.ie) lists eight founding members who continue to produce cheese today. Their numbers have continued to swell. A Guide to Irish Farmhouse Cheeses published in 2010 by the Irish food board, Bord Bia, identified “47 producers and over 127 individual cheese types”. Today, that has grown to over 70 producers, with 500 individual artisan cheeses listed on Matthew O’Callaghan’s 2020 directory of Irish Cheese (irish-cheese.com).
Four decades on, the sheer youthfulness of the sector remains a defining characteristic. "Each of these Irish cheeses were created by individual people and over just the last 40 years,” Kevin reminds us, "which is very different to traditional European territorial cheese with an evolution that has taken place over hundreds or even thousands of years of a common shared recipe or cheese that's associated with an area.
"There was a time about 15 years ago when the cheese community was looking at PDOs [Protected Designation of Origin] and the likes for Irish cheese, but then they began realising the advantages of the freedom to experiment without restrictions.”
The rapid speed of the sector's evolution makes its achievements all the more impressive. As Kevin points out, “It takes a long time to produce a really good cheese”. He highlights stand-outs like Templegall, the Alpine-style cheese made by Hegarty's Cheese with raw milk from their own farm. Hegarty's was well respected for their punchy cheddar, but it's their new brushed-rind Gruyere-style Templegall that has wowed at Irish and international awards since its release in 2019. “It’s phenomenal,” Kevin says of the nutty, fruity, sweet-savoury character of this Irish Cheese Awards Supreme Champion 2021, “and to produce it that well within such a short period.”
Irish cheese has confidently claimed its place on a world stage. “Cashel Blue is a great example, in terms of the level of recognition and its place within international cheese,” Kevin elaborates. “It's a second generation cheese made on one Irish family farm from the milk of about five small farms within a very tiny area. And it's now sitting in some of the best cheese shops in the world, alongside Stilton with several hundred years of production, or Roquefort or Gorgonzola with a thousand years’ evolution. I don't think there's any other cheese in the world where you've seen that happen."
One aspect that has made this fast-tracked evolution possible is a climate that offers particularly clement conditions for growing, with its mild late winters and early spring and ever-present humidity. This has been a boon not just for the growth of grass to rival the best of the Alps or of Devon, but for the microflora that give nuance and complexity to the cheeses they help develop.
The evolution shows no sign of abating. Top quality sheep's milk cheese such as Cáis na Tire (gouda style and a chef’s favourite) are popping up alongside Toonsbridge Smoked Scamorza or Macroom Buffaloumi made from Cork’s own buffalo herds, and more recently Venezuelan- and Brazilian-style cheeses (Sabanero and Minas respectively).
The beauty of natural artisan cheesemaking is that these renditions will never be straight copycats of the original style they are inspired by. "You can't just replicate,” says Kevin, "because where you make the cheese has such an influence on how it comes out. The landscape and the microflora is going to change your cheese, whether you like it or not.”
Many of these cheesemakers welcome visitors to their farms – St Tola goat farm is a particularly well set-up example on the edge of the spectacular Burren – though it would be near-impossible to visit Ireland and not sample many of its best cheeses, so prolific are they from gastro-toastie food trucks to the finest dining tables.
Today's new wave of Irish chefs are giddy with choice not just for great local cheese, but for what Kevin describes as the "wave after wave after wave of foods” that have come in their wake. The can-do confidence of modern Ireland's food and drink culture that permeates from sourdough bakeries to the craft breweries stems in no small part from those early cheesemakers.
“Not only did they show that it was possible,” Kevin argues, “but also behind the scenes, they were busy meeting eking out a space in the economic state systems, so that by the time the others came along the path had been cleared for them.”
Blessed indeed are those who have cheesemakers to call their own.
TOP THREE Irish Cheese & Beer Pairings
St Tola Ash Log raw milk goats cheese from Co Clare with The Farmer is the Man (5.3%), a quaffer of a lemon thyme saison from Heaney's in Co Derry.
Drunken Saint brandy-washed brie from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese with Westport Red Tripel (8%) from Mescan, Co Mayo, with notes of ginger-spiced mandarin, fig compote, malty caramel and red liquorice.
Smoked Gubbeen from West Cork alongside Gubbeen chorizo with the smokey bacon, miso and plum sauce notes and sweet toasted malt of Brewers at Play Rauchbier (5%) from Kinnegar in Co Donegal.
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