The cheesemakers putting Northern Ireland on the fromage map
Saturday 10 February 2024
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Long renowned for the superb quality of milk produced by cows grazing on its lush green fields, Northern Ireland is now becoming celebrated for the wonderful cheeses made from that milk. Over the past decade or so, a growing movement of talented artisan cheesemakers have been perfecting their craft, creating award-winning cheeses which are now in demand across Ireland and the UK and throughout the international market.
This hasn’t always been the case though; despite the famed abundance of its dairy herd, Northern Ireland lacks the cheesemaking traditions of the south, or its neighbours on the UK mainland.
In a way, this stands to reason, as cheesemaking has tended to thrive where there was a surplus of milk, or where dairy farmers might otherwise struggle to make ends meet. In the Republic of Ireland, for example, milk prices have historically been so low that farmers turned to cheesemaking to preserve their excess milk, while also adding value to what would otherwise be a commodity product. Not so in Northern Ireland, where milk prices have always been higher, and the dense richness of the butter has always ensured high demand both domestically and overseas. There was simply no need to make cheese, except for the farmers’ own consumption.
Somewhat counter-intuitively though, this lack of pedigree may have been an advantage. Northern Ireland’s upstart cheesemakers are blessed with outstanding raw ingredients and a blank slate, allowing them to experiment without the weight of expectation faced by their peers in more cheese-famous geographies like Wensleydale, Cornwall, Cheddar or Lincolnshire.
As a result, you can browse a deli or cheesemonger in Northern Ireland and find an absolute riot of styles, created by small-batch cheesemakers driven by a desire to innovate, rather than simply to continue the local traditions. All on the same shelf, you might find Dart Mountain’s exceptional Sperrin Blue, next to a Triple Rose and cider-washed semi-soft cheese from Ballylisk of Armagh, next to a cycling-inspired Italian smoked Scamorzad from Velocheese. All super-local, all created out of pure passion, and most importantly all outstandingly delicious.
The range of what’s available is increasing all the time, representing yet another success story for Northern Ireland’s ascendant food and drink scene. Particularly when you see these cheesemakers connecting with craft brewers, distillers, foragers and jam-makers, it’s clear that something very special is happening in Northern Ireland. New traditions are being made here, and are quickly taking on a momentum all of their own.
From large cooperatives to literal garage projects, Northern Ireland today boasts a cheesemaking culture that is as diverse as it is excellent, making full use of the province’s outstanding natural resources.
Davide Tani, originally from Sardinia, studied cheesemaking in Puglia and now handcrafts Italian-style fresh cheeses in Belfast, where he moved in 2015 with his Northern Irish wife. His line-up includes classics such as Burrata, Mozzarella, Stracciatella, and smoked Scamorzad. Crucuially, Davide integrates his passions for engineering and cycling into Velocheese, aiming for carbon neutrality and zero plastic use. The Velocheese name came from ‘velomobile’, an electric-assisted human-powered vehicle, which Davide has championed as a way to address climate change, traffic jams and a sedentary lifestyle.
Pioneering raw milk cheesemaking Michael Thomson developed his passion while at Arcadia Deli in Belfast, and furthered his skills at the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire. Supported by crowdfunding, he launched his own business using milk from a single herd. His renowned Young Buck cheese is a favourite in top Northern Irish restaurants, including Michelin-starred Deane’s EIPIC and OX. His small team balances cheesemaking in Newtownards and running their beloved Belfast shop.
Ballylisk of Armagh, renowned for its award-winning cheeses, is the delicious legacy of five generations of the Wright family’s farming in Co. Armagh. The family’s pedigree Holstein herd produces high-quality milk, key to the company’s distinct cheese varieties. Its flagship Triple Rose, a semi-soft white mould-ripened cheese, along with other unique flavours like the cherrywood-smoked Triple Rose and cider-washed version, stand out for their rich, creamy textures and exceptional taste, surpassing even French rivals. All cheeses are freshly made daily in a dedicated facility.
Located in the Sperrin Mountains, Dart Mountain Cheese crafts award-winning cheeses, along with a complimentary range of pickles, chutneys and jellies. It was founded in 2010 by husband and wife team Julie and Mike Hickey, who transformed a derelict farm shed into a modern food unit and creamery. Its first cheese, Sperrin Blue, was followed by other award-winning varieties and an expansion into artisan granola, relishes, and chutneys. The company is dedicated to artisan production, environmental responsibility, and supporting local farms, ensuring food integrity and community development.
Kearney Blue Cheese, inspired by the Ards Peninsula landscape, is made with the finest milk from nearby farms. Known for its luxurious creamy quality, rustic texture, and piquant taste, it has won multiple awards, including Gold at the British Cheese Awards and 'Best Irish Cheese' at the Nantwich International Cheese Festival.
As the UK's largest farmer-owned cooperative, Dale Farm is the undisputed big dog of Northern Irish cheese, owned by 1,300 UK farmers, and offering a diverse range of dairy products including milk, award-winning cheeses, yogurt, ice cream and desserts. Its operations span the entire dairy chain, from farm services to marketing. Dale Farm prioritises high standards of food safety, animal welfare, traceability, and environmental impact, with all farmers being Red Tractor approved. Sustainability is at the heart of the business, which notably launched a 35-acre solar farm at its Dunmanbridge cheese plant in 2018; a significant step in the global dairy industry.
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