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Cheese Revolution

This was originally published in The Sunday Business Post a few years ago.

Sadly, the wonderful cheesemaker and person David Tiernan who I interviewed for this piece has since passed away. He is much missed.

Food Special: Cheese Revolution

CHEESE, and particularly Irish cheese, is one of the great loves of my life. It’s been there on my soggy school sandwiches. It’s been there at supper time, when I decided to get adventurous with spaghetti bolognese. And it’s been the only thing I could stomach during the glory and heartache of falling in and out of love.

My parents instilled an appreciation of this wonderful food in me from an early age, but in the last few years it has become a passionate pursuit and daily obsession in my cooking, eating, discovering and learning.

I have it with marmalade with my toast, I’ve used blue cheeses with bacon and chocolate, and I’ve been known to swoon on sight when a restaurant has a cheese-board, or the ultimate – a cheese trolley – on its menu. And a restaurant cheeseboard with Irish cheeses? Ticks all boxes.

Cheese maketh the meal for me. In fact, it has now become one of my most cherished meals. Irish cheese and cheesemakers have become a source of inspiration, pride and delight in my work, and I now dream of ways to include cheese in every meal, dinner party, dessert and article that I write. There is a pureness, a joy and a story to taste in each cheese.

Irish cheese is about people, the land it comes from and the story of its producer. One special family, or one tiny exposed coastal pasture on the edge of the Atlantic, can produce one unique and excellent cheese. And that is what has me completely hooked.

I’ll always remember the look on my friend’s face when they first tasted Ardrahan. Yes, it’s one of my favourite Irish farmhouse cheeses. Yes, it usually provokes a long, lingering, deliberate blink followed by a contented smirk. But this friend of mine was French, and utterly convinced that his country produced the best cheese in the world.

I admit he may have had a point – I do adore French cheeses. But seeing the look of surprise, confusion and delight on his face after tasting this delicious west Cork cow’s milk cheese made by Mary Burns, his response came like a sublime little victory for me. “I suppose . . . I admit . . . that is pretty good cheese,” he said, before he scoffed the lot.

Irish cheese is in strong demand at home and abroad, but that wasn’t always the case – once upon a time, the Irish cheese landscape was really quite bleak.

We were similar to other countries in having a strong historical tradition of cheese making dating back centuries from monks and religious orders. But for most of the early part of the 20th century, there was little other than massive industrial factory production of cheddar, with the only exception being a small-scale operation run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mosy in Roscommon.

Then in the 1970s there was an Irish cheese revolution. During this period, the Irish palate was slowly, slowly starting to change. Taking our gastronomic baby steps, we travelled more, we got more adventurous, we tasted more wine, different food and more cheese.

Joining the European Union opened up trading and travel, and in west Cork, something special was brewing – a group of passionate dairy farmers started making farmhouse cheese with the hope of gaining agricultural self-sufficiency. Thankfully, the National Dairy Council saw this potential and the opportunity to promote superb farmhouse cheeses, both domestically and globally, and by 1983 the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association had been formed.

Among those founding revolutionaries who are still making cheese today are the Steele family who make Milleens; the Fergusons who make Gubbeen; the Willems who make Coolea; Jeffa Gill who makes Durrus; the Berridges who make Carrigbyrne; the Brodies who make Boilie; the Mahers who make Cooleeny; and Bill Hogan and Sean Ferry who make Gabriel and Desmond cheese.

In less than 40 years, we have arrived at a situation where there are now more than 120 different cheeses made here. My favourite changes from day to day, and even during one cheese board sitting.

Coolea has the magical intense caramel sweetness that, for me, surpasses any Gouda. It’s made in Cork by Dick Willems senior and his wife Helen, who moved here from the Netherlands.

Helen Willems originally started making cheese as a way of using up extra milk; at the time Gouda was like gold dust, so the couple got a recipe from home, and Coolea was born. Its thick rind often causes little shards of deliciousness to crumble off when I attempt a clean slice – these shards are now my very favourite treat, and will beat a Werther’s Original any day of the week for toffee satisfaction.

Then there’s Cashel Blue, the Pelé of Irish cheeses, made by the Grubb family in Tipperary, and their other cheese, Crozier Blue, still the only Irish blue made from sheep’s milk. Richly salty, gooey and creamy when it’s young, it has a much more intense bite as it matures.

David and Mairéad Tiernan, who make the superb Glebe Brethan on their farm in Louth, epitomise everything that is uniquely wonderful about the Irish cheese maker. “When you tell people you are going to make cheese, they look at you like you are slightly crazy, like you have horns on your head. And maybe you do have to be a little bit crazy to work with cheese, but I love it,” says David Tiernan.

Originally dairy farmers, the Tiernans are fiercely proud of the quality of the milk produced by their herd of Montbeliarde cows. After becoming disillusioned with dairy production here, they did their research on cheese making in France and made the first batch of Glebe Brethan in 2004.

“I’m not a cheese lover,” says David Tiernan. “I was reared on Calvita and all the other vile stuff. But after taking the kids on camping holidays to France I tried Comté, and to my surprise I loved it.”

Reminiscent of a Comté and Gruyère-style cheese, Glebe Brethan is a creamy, honey-coloured cheese which was featured on a cheeseboard presented to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth during her Irish visit. But David Tiernan doesn’t let this success go to his head; for him, it’s a labour of love.

“I love the whole process. It’s magical,” he says. “I milk the cows, I make the cheese, I turn the cheese, and I look after it. And there is no better feeling than walking the cows out in the morning knowing that by that afternoon there will be two big wheels of cheese, and that somebody on the other side of the world could be tasting it when it’s matured.”

It’s that holistic, all or nothing approach which is a running thread through the tapestry of Irish cheese making, as is the passion for raw milk, which German-born Silke Croppe uses in the cheeses she makes on her farm in Corleggy in Cavan. I can still remember my first taste of her cow’s milk cheese, Drumlin – with a heady glass of delicious red wine, it’s the type of meal that can change everything.

Siobhán Ní Ghairbhíth produces the sublime, divine St Tola organic goat’s cheese on the family farm at Inagh, Co Clare. Sweet and mild when young, it has a distinctive aromatic taste from the herby grass and coastal salty air the goats live on.

But amid all this passion, excitement and hard work, the Irish cheese industry is a fragile one too, and if a cheese maker shuts up shop, the cheese often goes with it.

Thankfully our demand for fine cheese in the domestic market has increased, and many restaurants, hotels and large supermarket chains, as well as independent food stores, are now offering a much more attractive selection of Irish cheeses.

And, of course, there are the gourmet food halls and cheesemongers such as the English Market, Sheridan’s, Fallon and Byrne, Magills and Avoca.

So next time, seek out the produce of Irish cheesemakers. Seek out their story, and seek out their magic.

Caitríona McBride is a food writer and television producer

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