God Bless the Cheese makers

God Bless the Cheesemakers – Ardrahan, Baylough, Coolea, Durrus, Fermoy, Gabriel, Hegarty’s, Lavistown, Milleens, Oisin, St Tola ….. Nowadays there is almost an Irish Farmhouse Cheese for every letter of the alphabet, over 60 in all and probably a few others that I don’t know about. 

The lovely Veronica Steele with her husband Norman, who makes the now legendary Milleens Cheese on their farm near Allihies on the Beara Peninsula, is considered to be the matriarch of the farmhouse cheese industry. She started to experiment in her kitchen in 1976 when she was faced with the dilemma of surplus milk from her three cows, a Kerry and two Friesians. The end result was the feisty Milleens we now know and love. The cheesemaking has long since moved out of her kitchen into her Palais de Fromage – the original cheese – a unique cheese type was about 9 inches in diameter with a gorgeous washed rind. About eight years later Veronica started to make some smaller 4 inch cheeses, which in her inimitable way she called her little dotes – they are now known as Milleens dotes.

Veronica shared her understanding of the potential of Irish Farmhouse cheese as an industry, with many of the other cheese-making icons, Giana Ferguson, Jeffa Gill, Mary Burns, Olivia Goodwillie, Louis and Jane Grubb, Paddy Berridge, Anne Brodie…..She recognised the need for education and organisation, and was instrumental in setting up CáIS, the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association.

Since those pioneering days a whole generation of spirited cheesemakers have learned their craft and accumulated a wealth of knowledge on artisan cheese production. Their cheeses are enjoyed by lovers of good food both at home and abroad. Visiting travel and food writers seek out the cheeses and visit the farms, charmed by the passionate producers they encounter. 

Many of the cheesemakers have become expert on the science of their product and have to contend with ever more stringent regulations, frequently out of proportion to the risk involved.

Many of the Irish cheeses have won top prizes at the British Cheese Awards, Eurotoque Awards of Excellence and Slow Food.

The Irish Farmhouse Cheese Recipes book, edited by Jane Russell and supported by Bord Bia, was officially launched by Bord Bia at the Eurotoques Conference 2004, on Sunday 4th July at the Brooklodge Hotel, McReddin Village, Wicklow and is on sale nationwide price €1. The pocket size recipe book contains recipes from farmhouse cheesemakers all over Ireland and includes tips for cooking and storing cheese, as well as a list of stockists of Irish Farmhouse cheese in the United Kingdom for those who would like to seek it out.

For further information, consult the Bord Bia website: www.foodisland.com  

The whole artisan food sector is gathering momentum, there are currently 320 speciality food and small business companies in Ireland with a combined turnover of €296 million. The Irish farmhouse cheesemakers have a turnover of approx. €7.5 million and have had an impact far out of proportion to their size on the image of Irish food both at home and abroad.

Buying Cheese
For perfection just buy the quantity of cheese you need for immediate consumption, or what can be consumed within one or two days. Most cheese shops, though certainly not all will be better equipped to store cheese properly than an average household. Few houses nowadays have a cool larder or pantry not to speak of a cheese cellar with high humidity. Fridges basically 'hold' cheese but they don't improve it in any way.

Storing Cheese
For perfection cheese should be stored in a cool larder or cupboard, but very fresh soft cheese should always be stored in the fridge.
Hard or semi-hard cheese need high humidity or they will dry out. Wrap them individually in clean damp tea towels and keep an eye on them if they are to be stored for more than a few days.
All other cheese should also be wrapped individually in its own wrapping or in greaseproof paper or tin foil. Cooleeney or Carrigbyrne Camembert or large Brie type cheeses, should be stored in their wooden boxes. Cling film is not good for wrapping cheese.

Blue cheese particularly those without a thin rind, eg. Cashel Blue, Bellingham Blue, Crozier Blue and Roquefort should be wrapped closely in silver or gold foil. Otherwise the blue mould (Penicillium Roquefortii) which is very prolific will travel into other cheeses and make them blue also.

Do not keep any cheese in a warm kitchen for long - soft cheese tends to liquefy and harder cheese sweat and become oily. Despite the fact that some cheese manufacturers recommend freezing, it is better not to freeze cheese unless it is a stop gap measure.

Accompaniments to cheese
Celery, grapes, lettuce, tomato roses, and various other garnishes are often served with cheese. All one really needs to serve with cheese in perfect condition is fresh crusty home made white bread or simple cheese biscuits.

A recent trend particularly in Australia and United States where there is in a new evolving farmstead cheese industry is to serve a cheese course.

A cheese plate with complementary nuts, dried fruit, relishes, perhaps a little salad and some crackers or flavoured breads.

Nuts……fresh walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia or brazil nuts…...
Dried Fruit…… plump dried Turkish figs, dried peaches or pears……. 
Relishes…… beetroot, ginger, tomato relish jalapeno, pimento ……..
Membrillo…… or Quince cheese – delicious with Manchego or soft goat cheese.
Honey…… particularly good with blue cheese

Here are some recipes from Jane Russell’s book

Baylough Cheese and Spring Onion Soup

Serves 4
25g/1oz butter
4 spring onions, trimmed and finely sliced
25g/1oz flour
600ml/1pint milk
300ml/½ pint chicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
11g/4oz Baylough farmhouse cheese or other semi-hard cheese, grated
2 tablesp. chopped parsley
freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter in a large saucepan and lightly fry the spring onions, without browning. Add flour and cook for 2 minutes. Gradually beat in the milk, stock and seasonings. Heat, whisking continuously, until soup comes to the boil and thickens. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove soup from the heat and stir in the cheese. Pour into warmed soup bowls and garnish with parsley and pepper.

Coolea and Leek Fritters

Serves 8
400g/14oz leek, very thinly sliced
25g/1oz butter
200g/7oz flour
2 free range eggs
250ml/9fl.oz milk
200g/7oz mature Coolea farmhouse cheese, freshly grated or other semi-hard cheese
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 fresh red chilli pepper, deseeded and finely chopped
freshly grated nutmeg

Tomato dip:

8 tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and finely chopped
4 tablesp.fresh basil leaves, chopped, or 30ml/2 tablesp. pesto sauce
150ml/3 pint extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter, add the thinly sliced leeks, cover and sweat on a gentle heat until soft, but not coloured (approx. 5 minutes.) Cool for 40 minutes. Meanwhile make the tomato dip by putting the tomatoes, basil or pesto and oil in a bowl and mixing thoroughly. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Then sieve the flour into a bowl, make a well in the centre, add in the eggs and break up with a whisk. Add the milk gradually, whisking all the time in a circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl. Add the leeks, when cool, and the grated cheese and red chilli pepper. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg to taste. Heat a frying pan, preferably non-stick, on a medium heat. Drop a tablespoon of the batter onto the pan, allow to cook until golden on one side, flip over onto the other and cook for a moment or two more. Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary. Serve hot with the tomato dip.

Durrus and Potato Melt

Serves 4
900g/2lb waxy potatoes, cubed
1 small Durrus or 400g/14oz portion, rind removed, cubed
2 onions, finely chopped
200g/7oz bacon rashers, cut into small pieces
250g/9oz tub crème fraiche
black pepper and salt

Steam or parboil the potatoes until just soft. Gently cook the onions and bacon in a covered pan. Put the potatoes, onions, bacon and cheese in a buttered shallow oven dish. Add salt and pepper and pour on the crème fraiche, mixing gently. Bake at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 15-20 minutes. Stir gently after 10 minutes. Serve with a green salad and a glass of red wine.

O’Connell’s Warm Salad of Gubbeen Cheese and Fingal Ferguson’s Gubbeen Bacon

(courtesy of Rory o’Connell of Ballymaloe House)
Serves 6
15ml/1 tablesp. olive oil
350g/12oz streaky Gubbeen bacon or other streaky bacon
6 handfuls of mixed green leaves
55g/2oz Gubbeen or similar cheese, diced


45ml/3 tablesp. sunflower oil
45ml/3 tablesp. olive oil
5ml/1 teasp. Lakeshore Whole Grain Mustard or other whole grain mustard
30ml/2 tablesp. Fruit of the Vine Cider Vinegar or other cider vinegar
salt, pepper and sugar 

Heat a frying pan and add a little olive oil. When it is smoking, add the lardoons of bacon and fry until crisp. While the bacon is cooking, put all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl and whisk with a fork. Toss the leaves in the dressing and divide between six hot plates. The leaves should be just glistening with the dressing. Sprinkle the cubes of cheese around the leaves and finally the bacon straight from the pan. Serve immediately. 

Homemade Crackers

Makes 20-25 biscuits
225g (8oz) plain white flour
½ teasp. baking powder
½ teasp salt
25g (1oz) butter
1 tablesp. cream
about 5 tablesp.water

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas 2.

Put the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter and moisten with the cream and enough water to make a firm dough.

Roll out very thinly to 2mm (1/16 in). Prick with a fork. Cut into squares with a pastry wheel or sharp knife. Bake for 30 minutes until lightly browned and quite crisp. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with cheese.

Foolproof Food

Milleens with Pasta

Serves 4
225g/8oz grated Milleens or other rind-washed cheese
300ml/½ pint cream
a handful of fresh sage leaves
350g/12oz tagliatelle

Place the sage leaves in a saucepan and pour in the cream. Warm the cream, but be careful not to overheat. Allow to sit in a warm place until the cream has absorbed the flavour of the sage and then strain. Add the Milleens and, if necessary, warm gently and stir until the cheese has completely melted. Cook the tagliatelle until al dente. Pour the creamy sauce over the tagliatelle, mix and serve.

This dish stands alone, but can be made more substantial by the addition of ham, which has been cut into strips the same width as the pasta or alternatively some white or smoked fish or chopped cooked spinach, or some lightly cooked fennel.

Hot Tips 

CáIS Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association is a voluntary association made up of over forty cheesemakers. Independently run and managed by the cheesemakers themselves, CáIS provides essential information, knowledge and networking opportunities for members. www.irishcheese.ie  

One of Ireland’s best known cheesemakers Mary Burns who makes Ardrahan, has recently launched a new product called Lullaby. Research in Finland has shown that the early morning milk has a higher level of melatonin which helps us to relax and sleep. This prompted Mary to bottle the milk from the cows that are milked at dawn, and to launch Lullaby which is already being hailed as a boon for those who have difficulty sleeping. Available in Cork at On the Pig’s Back in The English Market and the Quay Co-op, for details of other stockists coming onstream, Tel 029-78099.

Douglas Farmers Market
Started on 3rd July and will be held every Saturday in Douglas Community Centre from 9.30-1.30 – Frank Hederman’s Smoked Fish, Arbutus Bread, Catriona Daunt Organic Vegetables, Clodagh McKenna’s pates, Gubbeen cheese and bacon, Dan Aherne’s organic beef and chickens, Sonia Bower’s pickles, Oli O’Driscoll’s fresh fish and lots, lots more.

New Food Market in Dingle
From 9th July every Friday 9am-6pm – farm and organic produce

About the author

Darina Allen
By Darina Allen


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