Tribute to Veronica Steele

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This week’s column was to be about Food Trends for 2017 but as I penned the first few paragraphs the sad news of the passing of Veronica Steele’s, the matriarch of the Irish cheesemakers, passing came through and stopped me in my tracks. So instead, I want to write a little tribute to an extraordinary woman who has touched so many of our lives and whose legacy will continue to remind us of this, bright, beautiful, charismatic, self-deprecating character who unwittingly started the artisan food movement in Ireland.
I can’t begin to improve on this wonderfully description of how it all began in Veronica’s own words on the Milleens website (www.milleenscheese.com).
“The origin of the initial concept is fading in the mists of time. Hunger and shame. There was nothing to eat: nothing interesting. The old shop in Castletownbere with its saucepans and shovels and Goulding’s Manures clock wagging away the time, and smoked hams hanging from hooks in the ceiling and huge truckles of cheddar on the wooden counter with their mouldy bandages the crumbs of the cheese strewn around, scrumptious, tempting, melt-in-the-mouth crumbs which you could nibble at as you queued to be served, with your message list. And then she would cut a fine big chunk, golden or white and what I missed the most is the way it crumbled. So they closed it and gutted it and extended it and re-opened it. Enter the trolley. Spotless, sterile, pre-packed portions sweating in their plastic. Tidy piles. Electronic scales. Keep moving. Don’t block the aisles. No idle chatter. Big brother is watching you. Don’t ask for credit. Oh Boy!
And then one day in a different shop that jolly French pair of geriatrics asking for the local cheese and being given Calvita.
And then we bought a farm and a cow. Her name was Brisket and she only had one horn. She lost the other one gadding down a hill. tail-waving, full of the joys of Spring. Her brakes must have failed. We had to put Stockholm tar on the hole right through the hot Summer. And all the milk she had. At least three gallons a day. Wonder of wonders and what to do with it all. And then remembering those marvelous cheddars. So for two years I made cheddars. They were never as good as the ones in Castletownbere had been but they were infinitely better than the sweaty vac-packed bits.
Very little control at first but each failed batch spurred me on to achieve, I was hooked. Once I had four little cheddars on a sunny windowsill outside, airing themselves and Prince, the dog, stole them and buried them in the garden. They were nasty and sour and over salted anyway. Those were the days.
So one day Norman said, ‘Why don;t you try making a soft cheese for a change’. So I did. It was a quare hawk alright. Wild, weird, and wonderful. Never to be repeated. You can never step twice into the same stream. Now while this was all going on we had a mighty vegetable garden full of fresh spinach and courgette’s and french beans, and little peas, and all the sorts of things you couldn’t buy in a shop for love or money. And we would sell the superfluity to a friend who was a chef in a restaurant and took great pains with her ingredients. She would badger the fishermen for the pick of their catch and come on a Monday morning with her sacks to root through our treasure house of a garden for the freshest and the bestest. Now I was no mean cook myself and would have ready each Monday for her batches of yogurt, plain and choc-nut, quiches, game pies (Made with hare and cream – beautiful), pork pies, all adorned with pastry leaves and rosettes as light and delicious as you can imagine, and fish pies, and, my specialty, gateau St Honore – those were the days.
So there was this soft cheese beginning to run. We wrapped up about twelve ounces of it and away it went with the vegetables and the pies and all the other good things to Sneem and the Blue Bull restaurant where it made its debut. Not just any old debut, because, as luck would have it, guess who was having dinner there that very same night? Attracted no doubt by Annie’s growing reputation and being a pal of the manager’s, Declan Ryan of the Arbutus Lodge Hotel in Cork had ventured forth to sample the delights of Sneem and the greatest delight of them all just happened to be our humble cheese . The first, the one and only, Irish Farmhouse Cheese. At last, the real thing after so long. Rumor has it that there was a full eclipse of the Sun and earth tremors when the first Milleens was presented on an Irish cheese board.
The product had now been tested and launched. Its performance, post launch left nothing to be desired. The very next night Ms Myrtle Allen, accompanied no doubt by other family members, of Ballymaloe House, similarly engaged in testing the waters of Sneem, polished off the last sliver of the wonderful new cheese and was impressed by its greatness. And then began the second phase of research and development. Improvement.
For eight years, this was written in 1986, now we have devoted our energies to the continued improvement and development of Milleens cheese, and show no intention of stopping. The changes in the product have been gradual and subtle and in line with increases in production which are always kept in line with the growth in demand.
As the product developed so too has the packaging which is both simple and highly sophisticated. As Milleens must travel by both post and refrigerated transport a package had to be strong enough for the rigors of the postal system yet with sufficient ventilation to avail of the benefits of refrigeration where available. Our strong wooden boxes met these requirements. It was also thought necessary that the box serve as an attractive display for the cheese ensuring that the name Milleens was displayed prominently, and differentiating it from other products. It has been most successful in this area too and customers invariably display the cheese in the box. Very clever altogether. The boxes are made and stenciled here in our workshop by ourselves and members of the staff. Apart from growing and felling the timber all the phases of their manufacture take place at Milleens. They compare most favorably in price with any box on the market.
When Milleens was first made we knew enough about cheese making to write a slim volume, vast quantities of knowledge have since been ingested form all available sources form Scientific American to the Journals of Dairy Science and pamphlets from New Zealand on Bacteriophage. Grist to the mill. Making Milleens is no longer a slap-happy matter but has become a carefully controlled scientific process. thermometers have replaced elbows. Acidometers play their part now. But most of all milk quality is carefully monitored. Starters have long been recognized to have a most important influence on cheese flavor and quality, and are as well looked after as the crown jewels and to better effect.”

Oh, to be able to write so evocatively – I too remember when Annie Goulding at the Blue Bull in Sneem gave me a taste of her ‘friend over the hills’ cheese in the early 1980’s. At the time, as Veronica said we were a nation of Calvita eaters and one can but imagine the excitement when we discovered this feisty flavourful cheese that tasted of that place and tasted of Ireland. A new cheese was born – the beginning of a new era that has totally changed the image of Irish food both at home and abroad and has us bursting with pride.
Veronica had a vision for Ireland – farmhouse cheesemakers in parishes all over the country making cheese from their rich milk of their pasture fed cows. As she continued to experiment herself, she generously shared her knowledge, and encouraged so many others to get started. Jeffa Gill of Durrus, Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen, Mary Burns of Ardrahan and a whole host of others lovingly acknowledge Veronica’s influence. We visited Milleens many times and brought students and dignatories from all over the world to meet Veronica and her equally charismatic husband Norman. Always an open door, always a warm welcome. Nowadays their son Quinlan, the next generation, continues to make Milleens and build on his parents work.
And here at Ballymaloe House and Ballymaloe Cookery School we still serve Milleens cheese proudly and give thanks for the life of Veronica, the matriarch of all the Irish farmhouse cheese makers.

HOT TIPS
Midleton Farmers Market
It’s all about a healthy gut flora these days so if you want to boost your gut biome seek out Jerusalem Artichokes the wonder root that is higher in inulin than any other vegetable. Check out the BCS stall at Midleton Farmers Market which reopens today, 9.00am-1.30pm
Native Irish Oysters are at their very best at present. The only accompaniment they need is a squeeze of freshly squeezed lemon juice and a slice of soda bread. Kelly Oysters www.kellyoysters.com, Dungarvan Oysters www.hartyoysters.com, Sherkin Oysters 087 2029898 or enjoy a dozen in the English Market

It’s marmalade time again. Seville and Malaga oranges are in the shops, snap them up because the season is short. If you can’t get round to making marmalade at present, pop them into the freezer and make whole orange marmalade in a few weeks.

Struggling with Gluten Free Cooking?
As anyone who is coeliac, or who cooks for someone who has a gluten intolerance, will testify it can be challenging to produce really delicious, balanced meals. Finally, help is to hand – on Saturday January 28th, this intensive half day course is ideal for those on a gluten free diet who face the dilemma of longing to taste ‘real’ food. You’ll learn about a whole range of tasty and easy-to-prepare dishes including gluten-free sweet and savoury pastry, crackling salmon with coriander pesto and gluten free raspberry muffins. Advice on alternative ingredients and lots of baking tips will help take the mystery out of successful gluten-free cooking. www.cookingisfun.ie

Bernadette O’ Shea’s Milleens Pizza – from Pizza Defined

This is one step up from a pizza baked blind. It doesn’t have a sauce, it doesn’t have Mozzarella, it doesn’t have any of the traditional things you associate with a pizza.
When Milleens is cooked and melts, it has a buttery, slightly nutty sharp taste and the perfect pairing for that is sun-dried tomatoes, and a glut of soft herbs on top, always soft herbs: yellow marjoram, sweet marjoram, basil and oregano. These suit the herbaceousness of one the great West Cork cheeses.

140g (5oz) basic pizza dough
Basil oil or sun-dried tomato oil
85g (3oz) sundried tomatoes, excess oil squeezed out, shredded into strips
85g (3oz) cream cheese
85g (3oz) Milleens cheese, very finely sliced
Fresh herbs (marjoram, oregano, basil, yellow marjoram, lemon thyme etc.)
Rosemary oil or sun-dried tomato oil

Place Pizza Tile on floor of the oven and preheat to maximum for one hour.
Assembling the pizza –
Stretch the dough into a 20cm (8 inch) circle
Brush the surface with basil oil, or sun-dried tomato oil
Scatter the sundried tomatoes on top of the base
Dot with cream cheese to prevent from burning
Cover with Milleens
Bake in the preheated oven for approx. 10 mins.
After cooking brush the outer edge of the pizza with either rosemary oil or olive oil from the sun-dried tomatoes and scatter over a generous amount of the fresh herbs.

Tagliatelle with Milleens

Not sure who gave me this recipe but it’s truly delicious

Serves 4

225g/8oz grated Milleens or other rind-washed cheese
300ml/½ pint cream
a handful of fresh sage leaves
350g/12oz tagliatelle
8 pints water
2 tablespoons salt

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. Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil (8 pints water to 2 tablespoons salt) Cook the tagliatelle until al dente. Drain. Pour the creamy sauce over the tagliatelle, taste and correct the seasoning. 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.

Watercress, Blood Orange and New Season Macroom Mozzarella Salad

The new seasons blood oranges from Italy are in the shops, here we pair them with Macroom Mozzarella winner of World Cheese Awards 2016-2017 to the astonishment and chagrin of the Italian Cheesemakers.

The rich West Cork pasture that the buffalos feed on give the cheese its quintessentially Irish taste.

A few beautiful fresh ingredients put together simply make an irresistible starter.

Serves 4

2-3 balls of fresh Macroom Mozzarella
2 blood oranges
a bunch of fresh watercress
2-3 tablespoons Irish honey
a good drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
some coarsely ground black pepper
50g (2oz) unskinned almonds, toasted and sliced

Toast the almonds in a preheated oven 180°C/350°F/Gas Mark 4 for 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool and then slice each almond lengthwise into 2-3 pieces.

Just before serving, scatter a few watercress leaves over the base of each plate, slice or tear some mozzarella over the top. With a sharp knife remove the peel and pith from the blood oranges, cut into 5mm (1/4 inch) thick slices, tuck a few here and there in between the watercress and mozzarella. Drizzle with honey and really good extra virgin olive oil. Scatter with toasted almonds. Finally add a little coarsely ground fresh black pepper and serve.

Bitter Orange Marmalade

This is a dark marmalade, made with whole Seville or Malaga oranges for those who, like me enjoy a more bitter-tasting preserve.

Makes 4.5kg (10lb)

1.3kg (3lb) Seville oranges (organic if possible)
juice of 2 lemons
2kg (41⁄2lb) white sugar, warmed
225g (8oz) soft brown sugar, warmed

Scrub the oranges and put them into a large preserving pan. Put a plate on top to weigh them down and add enough water to cover. Bring to the boil, cover and cook until tender, about 2 hours. Remove the fruit with a slotted spoon, reserve the cooking liquid and when the fruit is cool enough to handle, cut it in half. Put the pips and fibrous bits from the centre aside. Cut the peel into 5mm (1⁄4in) strips. Put the pips and fibrous bits into a small pan with some of the reserved cooking liquid and boil for 10 minutes.
Strain the cooking liquid back into the preserving pan into the preserving pan. You should have about 1.6 litres (23⁄4 pints) of cooking liquid; add more water if necessary. Add the sliced orange peel and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Bring to boiling point. Add warmed white and brown sugar. Bring to the boil, stirring, and cook rapidly until setting point is reached, about 20 minutes. Skim and leave to cool for a further 20 minutes. Pot into hot, sterilised jars. Cover and store in a cool, dry place.

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Darina Allen
By Darina Allen

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