Dublin Shop Cheesemongers hit the road

Here is an insightful account of a recent trip taken by our Dublin Cheesemongers by ‘Monger Dominique. 

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Sheridans recently sent three members of their Dublin Shop to visit some much beloved producers of Irish cheese and meats production counties Cork and Tipperary.

Our trip was for two days but in order to make the most of it, as with cheese and crackers, we paired some natural opportunities:

  • in Kanturk, there were Ardrahan and McCarthy’s
  • in Cork City, The English Market and it’s long faithful love, On the Pig’s Back
  • And in Tipperary ,  we were herded over to the Cashel Blue factory near Fethard with Henry Clifton Browne’s flock of sheep.

First was Kanturk, three hours from Dublin when you leave at 6:30am. It is a sweet older town, lively, busy with big signs advertising bargains and thankfully not many To Let signs.

First port of call was Ardrahan, which is a true farmhouse cheese, we turned into the driveway marked out by short yellow gate posts with a sign reading ‘Ardrahan House” stenciled on the side. It is only byrounding a once affluent and equally yellow house into a car filled courtyard that we gained a little more confidence.  When a brisk older woman with a warming welcome emerged from the back door– we knew we’d reached Mary Burns and her Ardrahan.

Ardrahan is largely in Mary’s hands but it has been and will continue to be a family enterprise.  Liz, her daughter has a family member’s interest and led us on the tour, Mary’s son Ger manages the milking herd and the land and Joan and Mark, both locals, assist in the cheese making rooms. They have been with the Burns family for years.

The cheese tour begins immediately: hairnets, blue booties and white coats, this is not a fashion show. Joan is waiting by the vat with the set milk and begins to cutting the curd with passes of her cheese harp. It seems soothing, cutting and washing the curd and then doing it all over again, but it takes strength and experience to know when it is the right consistency for forming the cheese. Once accomplished the cheese making kicks into its own rapid development, the cheesemakers have ten or so minutes, two buckets, and 170 molds to fill with curd before it becomes too dry to set properly into cheese. Filled molds are then pressed with weight, once set they go into the brine. In this case the baby is the bathwater in that cheese makers hold on to their brine for years as it becomes part of the process in making the unique cheese.

In the cheese rooms the cheese exhibits the homespun variability that we know so well in the shop. Each cheese has a different depth and colours to its neighbours. The most consistent element, the identifying pattern on the rind, comes from almost haphazardly chosen wire racks on which the cheese is aged. Natural processes assist, even wrest with the cheese makers in the ageing process. Washing away unwelcome moulds and encouraging the growth you seek is like gardening but at a fungal and bacterial levels; they are kept busy shaking hands with one and shooing another. Finally there is the packing room where, emerging from their caves into the light, the ready cheese wait to be wrapped, labeled and sent to their next destinations.

Over lunch we talked with Mary, discovering how she came to making Ardrahan.. Mary applied to a cheese-making course for farmers in UCC in the early 1980’s and was told that she wasn’t farmer (man) enough to participate but when the turnout was low they changed their minds and invited her in.  Louis Grubb and some other cheese makers were also there. The course focused on cheddars and production at a larger scale than was practical to small farms but within the course they spent a week with an Irish cheese maker, Mary chose Milleens with Veronica Steele, and it was here that she found something practical for the farm.

McCarthy’s was our next destination. Kanturk, I finally learn, mystery solved, translates from the Irish as Boar’s Head. I was not misleading people seeking the McCarthy’s Boar’s Head pudding when I pointed to McCarthy’s of Kanturk (I had seen a Boar’s Head label on it before). Jack with his son Tim are the able-bodied forces behind the local and national reaching butchers. Jack is a larger than life man, an entrepreneur who works in food.

Most of the meats are locally sourced or from a field not too many beyond. They take it all in by hand and so are able to respond to the different breeds, ages, sizes that are brought in from the field (which is not possible in so automated factories), the pigs used go beyond the limited definition of ‘free-range’, succulent cappoquin chickens, mountain lamb, you can feel the countryside taking on rich dimensions.

Fed well visually and viscerally we feel it would be safer to head to Cork before Jack pulls us into a pub and the stories begin.

Our next stop is Isabelle Sheridan (not related except in activities) of On the Pig’s Back and Cork’s beautiful English Market.  Isabelle Sheridan is the woman behind On the Pig’s Back, it has been running in Cork for over ten years. She began with patés and terrines and her collections stretched to include a considerable variety of cheese, choice of crackers (including Sheridan’s), some freshly baked savories and breads. Isabelle recently opened an On the Pig’s Back in Douglas to accommodate the need for a bigger kitchen but it has become its own success and is packed with Corkonians for the lunch times.

The next day was an early drive to Tipperary and all things Cashel Blue. Sarah Furno, of the Grubb family, decided that we probably didn’t see much of the farms that engendered all of these cheese making projects and so arranged our first visit to be with Henry Clifton-Brown, her cousin, who is responsible for all of the sheep and all of the milk they produce.

From there we go on to the new Cashel Blue factory which is across the road from the old Courtyard where is all used to happen in Fethard, Co. Tipperary. It is quite discreet in its setting. We go through a door and enter into a very professional cheese making facility. I am a little giddy and the size of it. The intention was to create a place where the cheese could be made sustainably, in its current and increasing quantities, without exhausting the people or the landscape involved.  No curd cutting today but we see the open vats where the cheese harps (broaching looms)and harpists prepare the curd, lines of molds empty but for tomorrow’s Cashel Blue and then on into the brining and the ageing rooms. The brine is, as with Ardrahan, treasured and both Crozier and Cashel take their first swim in the same pool. The ageing rooms smell like sweet, young lactic Cashel and we begin to hunger. During the tour I learn that Louis and Jane Grubb’s recipe for Cashel Blue is quite unusual for a blue cheese; Cashel Blue is not like anything else (ie. it is not an Irish Stilton). They raise the temperature to a higher degree during the initial curding stage and then they age the cheese in moist cooler refrigeration for longer and use fabulous Irish milk – resulting in a more buttery, sweet, creamy blue than most and one which relies on the richness of Irish cow milk. The cheese made with Henry’s ewe milk is made very similarly but needs to age for a little longer and produces a cheese which is more blue, with a clear rich salty paste.

I’ve learned a great deal about our cheese makers and meat product producers, the art of their work and how they wrest and work with natural forces on one side and again with market forces on the other. Nature seeks change, lives in cycles and diversity and the market, particularly the larger market seeks the general and conformity. One of the joys of being a small farmhouse producers and working at Sheridan’s is that we seek to work with the natural products and create and offer individual and unique tastes which celebrate the land and engagement with it.

I think that it was a successful trip, at least for me.

Nothing is simple and easy and I think that is a general rule for all the good things in life J