Christmas can mean a lot of things, but for me it is all about cheese. As one of the great loves of my life all year round, I love that everyone else gets equally besotted with it at Christmas time.
Thankfully we have shaken off our Galtee shackles, and fled the Easi-Single prison cell to embrace the delicious cheese from our wonderful Irish cheese makers. We have the best dairy in the world and superb goats and sheep’s milk cheeses that will make your Christmas cheeseboard sing.
Every Irish cheese is special because it has a story; the producer, where it comes from and how it is made. As the late David Tiernan who made the glorious Glebe Brethan once told me, ‘You have to be a bit cracked to make cheese, but sure that’s the magic of it.’
This Christmas, do try Irish cheeses if you are entertaining, or even if you fancy just having a party for one with a glass of something by the fire. You will not be disappointed. Trying to choose my favourite Irish cheeses is like trying to choose my favourite Beatles songs so here are just a few gems from the Irish cheese crown.
Nollaig shona! x
Coolea is everything I love about salty and sweet styles of cheese. It is a magical cheese started by Dick Willems Senior and his wife Helene who moved to Cork from the Netherlands, and is now made by their son Dicky and his wife Sinead. Helene originally started making cheese as a way of using up extra milk; at the time Gouda was like gold dust in Cork, so the couple got a recipe from home, and Coolea was born. It has a very thick rind and a bright, warm amber paste and fantastic texture. If you like salted caramel or Maltesers mixed into your cinema popcorn, you will love it.
Gubbeen is like your favourite Auntie, always lovely and always dependable. It is one of the best known farmhouse cheeses and I love it for its butteriness, and when you get it at its best it is just heavenly. It is made using pasteurised cow’s milk by Tom and Giana Ferguson at their Gubbeen Farmhouse in Cork. It is a semi-soft, washed-rind cheese that has milky mushroom notes with a little whisper of the local flowers and the fine Cork landscape. Gubbeen is a knockout with a strong porter, I like it with Donegal’s Kinnegar ‘Yannaroddy’ porter.
Cáis na Tíre
I could kiss Marion Roeleveld for creating this fantastic cheese. Sheep’s milk cheeses are my favourite kind of cheese and if you like Manchego or Ossau Iraty, this is the one for you. Marion makes another fantastic cheese called ‘Killeen’ from goat’s milk in Portumna in Co. Galway, but it is Cáis na Tíre that’s on my Christmas day cheeseboard this year. It is salty and fruity and sweet with a great smattering of crystals through the paste when it is a little more mature. I love it with a soothing glass of Tempranillo.
Cashel Blue is the Marlon Brando of Irish cheese. Big, gorgeous and iconic. It is one of my all time favourite Irish cheeses made by the Grubb family in Tipperary. Richly salty, gooey and creamy when it is young, and has a more intense bite as it matures. The buttery paste is the best blás of Irish dairy. Try it with a glass of something a little sweeter with ‘It’s a Wonderful life’ on the telly; festive perfection.
If you want to try a different Irish blue pick up some of Mike Thomson’s ‘Young Buck’, a rogueish, raw milk hero of a cheese made in Newtonards, Co. Down. The gorgeous Astrid Dahlmann, Cheese manager in Fallon and Byrne explains why it should be on your Christmas board this year: ‘ Young Buck is a raw cow’s milk blue, Stichelton-type cheese. Mike is one of the youngest cheese makers on the island of Ireland and it is Northern Ireland’s first raw-milk blue cheese. When fully mature it is rich, creamy and rounded, like the best Stilton, but with a long-lingering finish and just a touch of Northern Ireland.’
St Tola Ash
St Tola is like a cloud of angels who have decided to take a waltz on your tongue. Light and airy with a unique taste of the coast and herbs the goats graze on, with a subtle citrusy finish, it is one of my favourite cheeses. It is rolled fresh in vegetable ash which makes it taste fantastic and really stand out on your cheese board. The very lovely Siobhán Ní Ghairbhíth produces this organic cheese on the family farm at Inagh, Co Clare. It is great introduction to goat’s cheese if you are a little nervous of it, and a great one to try instead of the usual brie or Camembert as the softer cheese on your board. It is heaven with a glass of Sancerre.
Punchy cheddar is always popular at Christmas but Coolattin cheddar is the antithesis of the mass-produced stuff that can taste like cling film and bounce like a hockey puck. Farmhouse cheddars like this raw cow’s milk Coolattin, or Mount Leinster as it is also known, are aged in a more traditional, cloth-bound fashion giving them a much more interesting flavour and texture. It is made by Tom Burgess, a truly passionate cheese maker in West Wicklow. Its signature red exterior will make it stand out on your cheeseboard, while its taste will linger long in the memory. I love it with a little Highbank Orchard syrup.
Little tips for cheese this Christmas
Where to get them
Dunnes Stores, Super Valu, Aldi and Lidl have certainly pulled their socks up when it comes to Irish cheese and have some lovely choices this year. Marks and Spencers have an Irish Christmas cheese board with Killowen Mature Red Cheddar, Cooleeney Brie and Cashel Blue.
Of course, there are the gourmet food halls and cheesemongers such as Cork’s English Market, Sheridan’s, Donnybrook Fair, The Butler’s Pantry, Lotts & Co., Morton’s, McCambridge’s, Fallon and Byrne, Magills and Avoca. Sheridan’s and Fallon and Byrne make up great selections and Sheridan’s do a specifically Irish selection available online.
What to choose?
A cheeseboard is all about the experience. A mixture of different tastes, textures and strengths of flavour make the best cheeseboard. Make sure you choose what you like though and if you are in doubt go for one soft, one hard and a blue cheese. It is like baking a cake or writing a song, there has to be harmony. Three or five works very well, but on the other hand, one hefty hunk of a good cheese will always outshine five or six tired, flabby bits of things that nobody wants to touch.
How to store it
Cheese tastes better when it is happy, and it is happiest when it is in a dry environment. Seamus Sheridan from Sheridan’s Cheesemongers suggests keeping it an airtight container like an empty tin in the garage or in an airtight container in the fridge. Seamus says ‘don’t be afraid to cut a bit off at a time when you are serving. You can wrap up the rest and use it another time.’ Keeping it wrapped in greaseproof paper or foil is better than clingfilm as that will make it sweat. Think of it like red wine and take it out of the fridge an hour before you wish to serve it. Always remember to cut cheese so the rind is evenly distributed. Cutting the nose off the wedge of Brie will put you on Santa’s naughty list in my kitchen, nobody wants to be left with a hunk of rind. Using a different knife for each of your cheeses does keep them pretty and allows each one to taste of what it is.
What do I serve with it?
Less is more when it comes to accompaniments for cheese, the cheese is the star so there is no need to smother it. Gubbeen, Sheridan’s, Ditty’s and The Foods of Athenry have lovely crackers. Go for a plainer, lighter one that will not overpower. Fruits like grapes and thin slices of apple work very well and a drizzle of honey works with goat’s cheese. Chutneys and port jellies work very well, but remember the cheese is like the Christmas fairy, nothing will top it so it is always best to let it shine. The most important thing is to relax and enjoy it.