The Story of Irish Cheese
The journey across the Irish countryside on your way to visit one of our farmhouse cheese-makers is one of great anticipation of the treasures and pleasures that lie ahead. The nature of farmhouse cheesemaking almost inevitably ensures that you will travel up mountains, across hills and along countless side roads and boreens to reach them. As you approach the farmhouse all is as you would expect from an Irish family farm. A solid house stands proudly with sheds and farm buildings, old and new, spreading out into the landscape. As you get closer, you realise that there is something out of the ordinary happening here. A few more cars than might be expected, a hum of activity and you catch a glimpse of someone dashing across the yard in a white coat and hat. Then that smell, it suddenly engulfs you. Clean, fresh, humid – the unmistakable aroma of a dairy. As you enter the making room you are in the midst of shining vats, cheese-makers busily filling moulds with dripping curds, cleaning racks and trays with steaming water, everyone dressed in white, too busy to notice you.
Cheesemaking resembles dinner service in a restaurant kitchen – the difference being that there is no shouting! The cheese-makers stoop over the vats – all senses alert. They are watching the newly formed curd turn. Then they roll the soft’ glistening curd to allow it to develop. They taste, and judge when today’s curd is ready. Then they give the signal. From the moment the curd leaves the vat, everybody knows what to do. Their speed will amaze you. Whey splashes over stainless steel tables; the rhythmic thump of quickly turned moulds sets the pace. The cheeses are beginning to take shape.
From here the procedure begins to slow. The type of cheese being produced determines the path, each going their own way towards the maturing rooms. Here it is still and silent. The aroma changes. You can almost taste the finished cheese. It is within these thick walls of the maturing room that the cheeses are lovingly developed. Turned, washed and watched for weeks. On some farms years – until they reach their full potential. As you walk along the rows of silent, patient cheeses you can see them change slowly. Their rinds develop, moulds grow, and an almost magical transformation takes place, all the time under the watchful eye of the cheese-maker. Then at last you can taste.
Forty years ago Ireland did not have a living tradition of farmhouse cheesemaking but only a distant history. References to cheesemaking can be found in early Irish literature. One particular twelfth century document entitled Aisling Mhic Chonglinne (Vision of the Son of Conglinne) tells the story of how a poet-scholar travels throughout the south west of Ireland trying to rid the gluttonous king of a hunger demon. ‘an Craos Deamhain’. In the text the author refers to and gives descriptions of a number of cheeses, including the ‘sweet soft smooth cheese Maothal’ and ‘a firm, dry Tanach’. There is also evidence that when Irish monks such as St Gall travelled across Europe reintroducing many lost skills during the medieval period that they also brought with them cheesemaking skills.
Due to many complex factors cheesemaking did not become a major part of the Irish farming through the last centuries as agriculture developed; instead our farms focused more on the production of butter as a way to trade excess milk. It wasn’t until the 1900’s that Irish agriculturists began to look at cheesemaking again. At this time the farmers’ co-operative movement began and cheese production focused on supplying the Irish and particularly UK market with large scale production cheddars; these have now developed into our famous creamery cheddars.
In the 1970’s a natural revival of farmhouse cheesemaking began on farms that had been farmed by the same families for generations and on small holdings bought by people who wanted to escape to the peace of the Irish countryside. The first cheeses were made to satisfy the families desire for more interesting than was available; as the cheese-makers developed their craft, and enthusiastic friends, enlightened local chefs and shopkeepers put in orders for cheeses and the amateurs evolved into professionals.