Irish farmhouse cheese – from ancient times to a delicious cheeseboard
There is so much to taste and so many interesting stories behind every artisan cheese in Ireland. When I first came to Ireland I was surprised by how supermarkets were stocked with just many different types of cheddar? I could find some French Camembert or some Italian Parmesan on the shelves and the odd other still unknown product, but my food obsessed mind was looking for local and traditional Irish cheese. It didn’t take me long to realize how many beautiful farmhouse cheese producers Ireland has and how the tradition of cheese making has developed over the centuries. So I started looking… and I found plenty.
Ireland has nowadays a lot of small and bigger independent cheese producers and Irish farmhouse cheese comes now in many styles – from blue cheeses, to fresh and matured cheese, to goats, cows and sheep cheese. I’ll share some of my favourites at the end…but first let’s go back in time.
About 6000 years ago – when the people of Ireland began to clear farmland from forests, planting wheat and keeping cattle, sheep, goats and pigs, a first version of what we nowadays call cheese started to be made. Neolithic farmers integrated their lifestyle with fishing, hunting and gathering. They kept cattle for milk as it was more efficient than raising it for meat and the milk was turned into cheese to preserve it during the winter months. Later, during the Iron Age, cattle was seen as ‘’supreme’’, so much that cattle raids were happening on a daily basis. Milk was an important element and strongly part of the diet, which was primarily based on what is sometimes referred as ”white meats” or’ ‘Banbhianna” – milk products like buttermilk, butter and cheese. Milk was used in different ways, and the large quantities of the summer months were preserved through the process of cheese making, which would provide proteins and fats for the scarce winter months.
In and around the 15th century crop failures and following famines were common. With the English settling in Ireland and their greater influence, trade and commerce increased. The political unrest that Ireland was facing led to a loss of major culinary traditions and an idea of ”inferiority” of the Irish food and traditions developed. Cheese was produced less and less over time.
It is during the late 70’s of the 20th century that Irish farmhouse cheese was re-discovered. Farmer families wished to make use of the excess milk and found, again, a way of preserving it producing wonderful cheeses. Every cheese is unique to its producer which is usually made on a family run farm. Sometimes they are the creation of a farmer’s wife that started experimenting with cheese making in her kitchen and ended up creating wonderful tasty cheese.
This is exactly what happened at Durrus Cheese in Co. Cork. Last year, during a weekend away to West Cork for A Taste of West Cork Festival I got to visit one of the farm in Durrus where Sarah and her mother Jil welcomed us and told us their story – a farmer’s wife who started making cheese in her kitchen with the farm’s cow’s milk and a passion that has developed and grown since then. We got to taste their wonderful Durrus classic, a fresh semi soft cheese, with rich earthy notes in its rind; Durrus Og, a younger version of it and their special Dunmanus – a cheese made with summer’s milk only and left to mature to a hard cheese for at least 6 months.
Because we were in Co. Cork and were driving back to Kerry, we decided to drive the Baera Peninsula and see if a visit to Milleens Cheese was also possible. And it was indeed! Quinlan Steele is the second generation of cheese makers and he welcomed us at his farm. He is continuing the tradition that his mother Veronica and her husband started back in the 70’s, at a time when cheese making and cheese eating was a foreign idea to most of the people in Ireland. It was Veronica who inspired many, and her Milleens Cheese is today considered the first cheese of the farmhouse cheese revival in Ireland. A farmhouse cheese revolution had started.
The concept of regional cheeses, like Parmesan or Camembert is unknown to Ireland. Every artisan cheese here is unique to its family, its land, its cows and the fields where they herd. Each cheese picks up the flavours of the land, which is unique to a specific area, giving different flavours to the milk which is then made into cheese. Most of the herds in Ireland spend spring, summer and autumn at pasture so the cows get to graze outside on Ireland’s green fields and produce high quality milk.
So, I hope you get inspired and start to discover some new Irish delicacies. Have you ever thought of putting together your own cheese board at home? Impress your guests with delicious Irish cheese or pick a few for a lovely pick nick? If you are lucky to have a local cheesemonger (in Kerry go to The Little Cheese Shop in Dingle and The Cheese Shop in Tralee; Sheridans Cheesemongers have several shops around the country), they would be more than happy to advise on what to pick and choose.
A good rule for a great cheese board is not to have too many cheeses – even though, I know, it is hard to say no to one or two more… Ideally, you want to have one hard cheese, one blue cheese, one soft or semi soft cheese and a speciality cheese. Always start the tasting with the mildest cheese and finish with the strongest. Here’s some of my favourites… maybe with a nice glass of wine.
Because of my love for mozzarella – especially from buffalo milk – I like to start with a few bocconcini and there are some delicious products out there like Toons Bridge Mozzarella (Co. Cork) or Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella (Co. Cork) are delicious. Once Upon a Cheese (Co. Kerry) produces mozzarella the traditional Italian way with excellent Irish milk.
You definitely have to try some Gubbeen, Milleen and Durrus – they are semi-soft washed rind cheeses. You’ll get to taste the unique character of each one of them. I also love the Triple Rose of Ballylisk of Armagh (in Northern Ireland) which is a spreadable cheese with extra cream added during the cheese making process. yum!
I think it is very nice to have a goat’s cheese on your board. If you are not too sure if you like goat’s cheese – or even if you are definitely sure you do!! – try the Dingle Goats Cheese made by Angela here on the Dingle Peninsula, it is mild and spreadable. Also, Gleann Óir which is a semi-firm goat’s cheese from Cooleney farm in Co. Tipperary is lovely.
Then, move on to something harder- I love Coolea which is made in Co. Cork and is a Dutch style Gouda with a yellow wax rind. Dunmanus from Durrus is also one of my favourites.
What about blue cheese? I love it. There is a lovely one made here in Kerry – Kerry Blue so sweet and crumbly. Or of course Cashel Blue from Co. Tipperary, and if you really want to try something special, Crozier Blue made from sheep’s milk at the same farm is divine.
Finally, relax with friends and open a nice bottle of wine for a cheese get together. There is so much more out there, these are some of my favourites and I love tasting new cheeses and learn the story behind them. I hope you will too!