Irish Farmhouse Cheeses: Why Ireland is tops when it comes to cheeseboards
Two cheese-lovers have travelled throughout the country to sniff out our best varieties. They tell Dave Robbins about their 10 favourites
When mates Glynn Anderson and John McLoughlin found themselves "self-unemployed" following the dotcom bubble in the late 1990s, they bemoaned their fate over a glass of wine and a slice or two of cheese.
They had a lot in common. They both worked as consultants in the IT sector, and they both loved Irish farmhouse cheeses.
The wine flowed, the cheese stank and the talk turned to the notion of writing a book showcasing the best of Irish cheesemaking.
However, like many ideas hatched in similar circumstances, it went no further.
Then the pair collaborated on a book on Irish bird folklore, with John taking the photos and Glynn writing the words, and the publishers asked if they had any other book ideas.
Their cheesy conversation of a decade earlier came back to them and they were given a commission -- and a year to don the hairnets and visit every artisan cheesemaker in the country.
The result is Farmhouse Cheeses of Ireland: A Celebration (Collins Press, €19.99), a rich and detailed encyclopedia of what people are doing with curds, whey and rennet.
Irish cheesemaking had all but died out in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was reborn in the 1970s.
"We had a strong tradition of cheesemaking, even in medieval times," explains John McLoughlin. "It's even thought that Irish monks taught the Swiss how to make cheese.
"But the 1970s saw a renaissance in Irish cheese. Irish people started to travel more and taste continental cheeses. We had joined the EU. And there was an influx of Dutch and Germans into places like West Cork, where land was cheap at the time," he adds.
Now Irish cheeses can hold their own among the big brands of Europe. At the recent British Cheese Awards, the Supreme Champion Award went to Kilree cheese from Knockdrinna, Stoneyford, Co Kilkenny.
Other Irish cheeses also picked up awards: Killeen from Co Galway won best goat's cheese, and Knocklara in Co Waterford won a medal for best soft sheep's cheese.
Now, John and Glynn have racked their brains and scoured their book to come up with their 10 favourite Irish cheeses. "It's not really a Top 10," says John, "more of an Irish cheeseboard."
St Killian is a distinctive hexagonal shaped camembert/brie-style cheese. When just ripe, the cheese has a wonderful melt in the mouth creaminess. More mature versions, though difficult to find, can reward fans who like their cheese strong.
Cheesemaker: Patrick Berridge, Carrigbyrne Farmhouse Cheese Co, Adamstown, Enniscorthy, Co Wexford.
First made in the late '70s and arguably the first on the current wave of Irish farmhouse cheeses, Milleens is one of our finest examples of washed-rind cheeses (the ones that usually get the finger pointed at them for being smelly). The cheese has enormous depth of flavour, and is a must for lovers of stronger varieties.
Cheesemaker: Quinlan Steele, Milleens, Eyeries, Beara, Co Cork.
Another camembert-style cheese, Cooleeney has a complex barnyard, mushroom flavour on the palate, intensifying as it ages.
Cheesemakers: Breda & Pat Maher, Cooleeney, Moyne, Thurles, Co Tipperary.
Ireland produces a number of very fine gouda-style cheeses. Coolea is probably the one that's been around the longest. It has a wonderful sweet, pleasant flavour, but the mature version is well worth seeking out, as it has an intense, nutty, toffee-like flavour.
Cheesemakers: Dicky & Sinéad Willems, Milleens, Coolea, Macroom, Co Cork.
Although only in production for around two years, this ash-covered Loire Valley-style fresh goat's milk cheese, produced by Anna Léveque on the banks of the Suir in Co Waterford bursts with fresh creaminess, with mild citrus notes and is well worth seeking out.
Cheesemaker: Anna Léveque, Killowen Orchard, Portlaw, Co Waterford.
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Arguably could be in the classics list, we've plumped for Crozier over elder brother Cashel Blue for its unique position as the only Irish sheeps milk blue cheese. Young cheeses are creamy, with a distinct saltiness. The saltiness gets absorbed as the cheese matures and the flavour intensifies.
Cheesemaker: Louis Grubb, Beechmount, Fethard, Co Tipperary.
Probably the largest cheese in physical terms produced here, Glebe has a nutty intensity reminiscent of French alpine cheeses such as comté.
Cheesemakers: David & Mairéad Tiernan, Glebe House, Dunleer, Co Louth.
The first cheese produced from the ever-inventive Frank and Gudrun Shinnick in Fermoy, St Gall is a cheese somewhat reminiscent of gruyère. It has a rich nutty taste that intensifies as the cheese matures, with a light yeasty tingle on the tongue to finish. It's a brilliant cheese to cook with (if you can resist eating it beforehand) because it melts really well.
Cheesemakers: Frank & Gudrun Shinnick, Strawhall, Fermoy, Co Cork.
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There are quite a few fine smoked cheeses to be found throughout Ireland. Drumlin is produced by Silke Cropp in Co Cavan and smoked by Frank Hederman in Cork. The smoking is wonderfully delicate, resulting in an intense almost meaty flavour.
The uncut cheese looks striking as well.
Cheesemaker: Silke Cropp, Corleggy, Belturbet, Co Cavan.
Dingle Truffle Cheese
Produced by Maja Binder in Dingle, this is a little ball of fire, and well worth seeking out in Maja's beautiful cheese shop should you find yourself in the kingdom.
Cheesemakers: Maja Binder, Kilcummin Beg, Castelgregory, Tralee, Co Kerry.