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Frederic William Burton - The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, 1864
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Not Just Another Cheese: Irish Farmhouse Cheese

farmhouse cheeses

Farmhouse cheeses - Photo by author

by Suzanne Barrett

Ring, Cooleeny, Cashel Blue, Ardrahan... some of the evocative names found on many of Ireland's best cheeseboards today are just a few of the thirty or so appetite-whetting assortment produced by members of the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association. But to sample such delicacies, you'll have to come to Ireland.

Unlike large producers, where milk for cheesemaking is pooled from several sources, Irish Farmhouse cheese uses milk produced by the farmer's own herd. Made by the families who have lived and worked on the same farm for generations, Irish Farmhouse cheeses have a rich tradition.

Irish Farmhouse cheese is as richly varied as the national landscape, with dairies ranging across the length and breadth of the country. Many of the cheeses have quite distinctive flavors, derived from the grass on which a particular herd grazes.

Ring cheese, a hard, close-textured Cheddar-Gouda type, has a lovely golden color and slightly nutty flavor. It is produced in an eight-pound round. Cooleeny, made from Friesian herds in County Tipperary by Jim and Breda Maher, is a Camembert type with a luscious semi-liquid center and a snappy flavor that's both smooth and robust with tastes of oak and mushrooms. Its texture when ripe is thick, velvety and somewhat melting. Cashel Blue is the product of Louis and Jane Grubb at Beechmount, also in County Tipperary. This fine, mild semi-soft blue cheese has a distinctive creamy flavor and lends itself to eating alone or with crackers. It's at its best at about four months old when the paste takes on a rich yellow and turns buttery. Ardrahan, another semi-soft cheese boasts a bold aroma and a well-rounded earthy, smoky flavor owing much to the rustic golden brown washed rind. or. Producers Eugene and Mary Burns suggest a fine red claret as an accompaniment.

Durrus is another farmhouse cheese from the upland valley of Coomkeene, on the Sheep's Head Peninsula in Ireland's Southwest. Made by Jeffa Gill, this semi-soft, rind-washed artisan cheese has won medals throughout the world for its deep, complex flavor.

Many of the cheeses are prizewinners. Some of the cheeses are distributed throughout Ireland, a few in Britain, and still fewer on the continent.

According to Eileen Harty, producer of Ring cheese in Ring, Country Waterford, distribution is a question of economics. "I can't be a cheesemaker and a market person," Eileen says, --"and this is where a lot of people who are in small industries make a mistake. They think you can do everything."

However, because Eileen and other small operators cannot afford to pay a marketing manager, she must market the product herself. "I suppose," she adds, "we should have some kind of umbrella where the entire emphasis is on marketing."

Enter Bord Cáis--the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association. With exports comprising approximately 50% of production and farm gate sales in excess of IR£2 million, the cheesemakers require someone to coordinate the sales efforts both at home and abroad.

"Cheesemaking is hard work," related Eileen Harty when I visited her farm one mild January day. "But it's interesting work. It gets you away from the ordinary humdrum responsibilities of milking cows and killing chickens and doing the same old things every day. And, too, you meet a lot of interesting people."

"Germans adore our cheese," says Eileen. "Any Germans living within a radius of fifty miles come here, and they buy a great big hunk of cheese about every month."

Eileen comes by her trade naturally. Originally a Poultry and Dairy Instructress with a degree from the Munster Institute in Cork, Eileen visited farm wives and instructed them in cheese and buttermaking and home management techniques. Married, with four children, Eileen and her husband, Tom, manage 200 Frisian Holstein cows on 300 acres in the gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) are of County Waterford.

The Hartys began making Ring cheese nearly fifteen years ago with an initial production of ten cheeses a week. Now, with two additional employees, they produce 1000 pounds of cheese each week--500 pounds at a time.

Since Ring cheese is a hard cheese with six months aging required, Eileen says they are quite flexible as to when they make cheese, unlike makers of soft cheeses. "They've got to make it every day, because it only keeps for about a month."

Ring cheese is a unique taste experience. How did they come up with their recipe?

"We chose it by a toss of the coin," Eileen says, smiling. "It's not copied from anybody--it's just our own. We're quite happy with it."

We walked down to the cheese barn and viewed the 500-gallon double-jacketed vats where the cheesemaking process begins. There, Eileen explained a typical day in their cheese production.

At six o'clock the work begins. Milk is piped from the milking parlor located across the road directly into the vat. Steam in the jacket heats up the milk, and the starter--a vegetable-based rennet kept frozen in sachets--is added. As the lactic acid works, the cheese begins to firm. You can actually dent the surface with a touch of your finger.

After two hours, the cheese is firm enough to cut--horizontally and vertically--into cubes. At this stage, the curd is washed and scalded, and the whey poured off and fed to the calves. It's now about eleven o'clock.

The curd is poured into a smaller container with cloths placed on the top. Then it's weighted--literally stuck together as if you were making a huge batch of bread dough. This takes about an hour--a good time for a break. When you return, the cheese is cut out of the container with large, straight knives and put into cheese molds which give the cheese its particular shape. Wooden followers, flat rounds, are inserted on the tops of each perforated mold, then the cheese is again pressed under heavy weights to squeeze out any remaining whey.

In the afternoon, the cheese is removed from the molds and inverted, and the same weighting process repeated. It's now about four o'clock.

The following morning, the cheeses are removed from the molds and immersed in a brine bath for forty-eight hours. Two days later, they are taken out and allowed to dry, then each cheese is taken to a nearby room and painted with an edible coating to retard shrinkage and inhibit mold. Two layers of coating are required, a process which takes about four days. After this, the cheeses are put into the storeroom where they're allowed to sit for six months, during which time they must be rotated every three days.

Ring cheese does not deteriorate with aging, Eileen explains, although an original eight-pound cheese will have shrunk. "In fact," she says, "you could keep it four years. It gets better with age, like a fine Italian Grana."

Back in her cozy kitchen, over cups of tea, biscuits, and simply delicious cheese, Eileen told me of the competition between Association members, of their firm friendship, and of her hopes for improved marketing now that Bord Cáis has come on the scene. "We really expect them to do wonders for us."

If the marketing technique is half as good as these exquisite cheeses, I predict a bright and prosperous future in store for Irish Farmhouse cheese.

Update 2010: I understand that Ring Cheese is no longer being made by Eileen Harty and that a bed and breakfast has opened next door to Gortnadiha, the family home.

Until next time.

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Midleton, Co. Cork

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