By Natasha Acosta
My name is Natasha and for the past month I have been an Intern in Sheridans Cheesemongers store in Galway. I came to the beautiful island of Ireland this past January to learn about Irish Culture and about its cheese. As I started in the store I was introduced to the first Irish cheeses of Ireland. One of them being a fresh milk cheese called Durrus. A raw cow’s milk cheese with a hand washed rind. As this round semi-soft cheese melts in your mouth, the flavours of creamy butter develop more and more giving a hint of acidity that lingers in your mouth much like the humble characteristics of the land where it is made.
For a week I was offered to visit the beautiful county of Cork, on the farm of one of the first female Irish Cheese producers of the 20th Century, Jeffa Gill the maker of Durrus Cheese. As she took me in for a week I managed to see her dairy and work along with her and her team. Every night Ms Gill receives milk from her neighbour to produce the morning cheeses. This is different to back in the day when she would have had her milk directly from her own cows originally.
As my first morning came, Jeffa heated the milk in a copper vat and added the rennet. As I watched her keep an eye on the Ph. balance and temperature, the milk magically firmed up to a consistency almost gelatin like. I was amazed how it only took minutes to coagulate. On came the cutting process, for which Jeffa uses a beautiful Swiss cutting harp. Cutting is a serious job, a two woman job from side to side and a lot of arm strength. As the women cut pieces of curd of about 1/2 oz. each, the cutting process was done. On to putting the curds into molds where the whey would drain off by its own weight and turn into cheese. This process led to an end result of about 280 cheeses. A batch of small Durrus “Óg” meaning young in Irish, and a 4-9 week more mature Durrus in a small and large wheel.
Then came cleaning, which is very important for cheese production and you could see it in Ms Gills Dairy, impeccable. As some cleaned I had the honour of turning the cheese. I was ecstatic for this job, really any, related to the production. Hand turning cheese seems like a simple task, but one that requires skill. You tilt the cheese in your hand as you hold the mold on the other and flip the cheese back into the mold. This keeps draining the weigh from the cheese and give it’s nice round shape. That would be done three times and a fourth held later at night. I would say turning is a very important part of cheesemaking, it allows proper drying of the cheese and air circulation. Consequently turning would be done through all the cheese process into the selling.
For the second day the previous days’ cheese where taken out of the mold and left to mature. While another day of cheese making took place. By now I felt like a pro with some experience. I could anticipate what was to be done next.
For my third morning I got to brine the cheese where they are put in brine for 2 to 5 hours depending of the size and desired maturity of the cheese. Brine is basically a bath of salt and water, for added taste and limiting bacteria growth.
For the fourth day the brining was done for the second batch of made cheese while the first batch would be washed in a brine solution that would begin to develop the nice pinkish color on the rind. For my fifth morning came the curing of the cheese. Where it seems like a spa for the cheese to maintain the humidity, appearance and sanitation. While watching out for any particular development that happened through the last 4 days, this being molds, or bruises. The cheese is taken in one hand and with an exfoliating glove scrubbed. Here it will remain in the curing room, being turned each day for a couple of weeks, until it reaches its maturity and gets packed and sold.
While cheese was being made on my fifth day I managed to escape to see the making of Sheridan’s crackers. That lovely cheese companion, ranging from linseed to mixed flavours. The warehouse was about an hour from Durrus Village in a village called Lissavaird in West Cork. This small artisanal warehouse had ten employees, consisting of two shifts. As I arrived at 10:30 in the morning, greeted by the first shift bakers responsible for Sheridans crackers. These bakers had been in from 5:30 am in the morning; around the schedule time the batter is made. Around 10:30am they where in their second batch of cookies. After the preparation of the cracker dough, it gets separated, measured and rolled by hand into a 450g log. This l og is then laid into a dough sheeter into about a milimeter thick. It is rolled about 4 times each to get the desired thickness. After it is carried to a baking sheet to be cut by hand into small rectangular crackers, removing any disfigured crackers. Afterward they are placed in a 12-row trolley to be baked in a closet size industrial oven for around 20 to 25 min. After baking the crackers are to be packed and sealed. What I thought to be done by machine was a very artisanal part of the production. Packing the crackers into little plastic trays is done manually while weighing each tray to 120g to be exact. My job came to an end here. What was missing was the plastic wrap and seal, done through a machine held by another employee. As I left I thank them all for a wonderful day and left happy to understand the crackers are very much artisanal, nonetheless they seem perfect every time.
After my day in the crackers warehouse I returned to the lovely Durrus village where I would say goodbye to the whole production of cheese, including Jeffa’s warmth. I travelled back to Galway with a head full of knowledge, a story of cheese making, the fresh Durrus and its beautiful landscapes. With this experience I get to share more with the customers at the store and I manage to transport myself both to Durrus and the crackers every time I have them.