Cheese-maker Tom finds gold in his west Wicklow fields
Wicklow dairy farmer Tom Burgess has created a food in demand at home and abroad.
It's chalky. It's crumbly. It's a pale yellow in colour. And it's delicious - a connoisseur's delight. Tom Burgess shaves some of his prize-winning cheese off a great big block he hauls from the fridge to allow his visitor a taste of this wonderful local delicacy.
The Coolattin Cheddar and Mount Leinster brands which he promotes are not to be found on the shelves of the large supermarket chains. Instead, restaurateurs, speciality shops and stalls at farmer's markets take as much of this glorious stuff as Tom can make, the Wicklow People reports.
The 56-year-old has been producing top class milk here at Knockeen in west Wicklow for two decades. The cheese is his way of extracting some extra value from the high quality liquid flowing into the tanks of the milking parlour.
Originally from down the road in nearby Tullow, Tom took up the holding with its 150-year-old stone farmhouse around 30 years ago. He resides here on the Wicklow side of the Carlow border with his wife Fiona and it is here that they brought up their now-adult children.
He came from a dairying background, grew up farming and took a degree in agricultural science at UCD to add some academic clout to his CV. When it came to establishing his own business, he populated his fields with Holstein/Friesian cows, the black-and-white breed responsible for most Irish milk.
However, Brussels put the brakes on the Burgess family enterprise, the EU setting restrictive quota limits on what milk they could bring to market. With some show of reluctance, Tom diversified into tillage farming and into sheep.
The lambs looked cute but their owner discovered found making mutton very time consuming, for limited financial reward. Rather than continue chasing ewes, he came up with the cheese wheeze around the turn of millennium.
The way he tells it, opting to make cheddar was the obvious thing to do for someone who believed his milk was top notch. Yet the reality is that very few Irish dairy farmers have proven prepared to follow the same logic.
'I was toying with the idea of making something with the milk,' he recalls, looking back at his thought processes back in the year 2000. 'Feeding cows on grass really does produce the best milk.'
Tom admits to being obsessed with grass, to the extent that he measures how much grass he has in each field and how quickly it is growing. He keeps his stock out on the land as much as possible, with rigorous management of the grazing paddocks, and he only feeds them silage during the calving confinement.
It rankled with him that what he saw as a premium product was not attracting a premium price. Instead, it was merely being drawn in tankers into the vast milk lake operated by the likes of Glanbia.
Thrashing around for an alternative, he rejected the possibility of making yoghurt or ice-cream, and settled instead on cheese.
First, he believed that he could create something genuinely distinctive. Second, he reasoned cheese would be much easier to handle and distribute as it is much less perishable than ice-cream.
While others - notably the much-admired Hempenstalls near Arklow - made their reputation with soft cheese, Tom went down the hard route. Wishing to provide his customers with unbroken supplies, he was aware that his style of herd management involves a winter break of at least two months in the flow of milk.
The time out is taken annually to allow the cows to calve. This is a problem for soft cheese makers whose products have a shorter shelf life. Cheddar, on the other hand, requires extended maturing, often for years, which allows the manufacturer the flexibility to release supplies as and when they are required. It was helped that he had old farm buildings at his disposal which could be adopted for making and storing his new product.
However, the first few experimental prototypes were concocted in the high-ceilinged kitchen of Knockeen House. Milk had to be mixed with the cheddar bacteria and curdled with rennet, with tricks of temperature control and use of moulds to be acquired.
The maturing of these first samples took place a few steps away from the Aga stove of the kitchen in the relative cool of a side passage.
Trips to Cork and to Britain were undertaken in the interest of research, enrolling on courses at UCC and Nantwich in Cheshire (the original Cheese-shire). When advice was needed, Eddie O'Neill at the Teagasc centre in Fermoy was always available to take calls.
'We made every mistake you could make,' says Tom with a laugh as he looked back on the early days. 'Some of the cheese was not up to the quality mark.'
Nevertheless, much of the output was very good indeed and it became clear that it improved with ageing.
Tom found an ally in Elizabeth Bradley from Fenagh in Carlow, who was also on a similar point on the learning curve.
She introduced him to the farmer's market in Carlow where he found himself not only selling his wares on Saturdays but also talking to customers who were keen to taste and eager to discuss food.
This was an experience that many farmers never have the privilege of enjoying as they do their business at a far remove from the consumers who buy their produce. Tom settled on the name 'Coolattin Cheddar' with a distinctive red wax rind. Coolattin may be the far side of Shillelagh but Knockeen House where he resides was originally part of the vast old Coolattin estate run by the Fitzwilliam nobility.
More recently, the name 'Mount Leinster' has been used as the brand name for cloth wrapped cheese made by the same process.
Whichever name, demand for the cheese has grown steadily over the past 17 years and the business appears set for further expansion.
Fiona, who works as a teacher, takes a lively interest, while offspring Charles, Alice and Lucy all have first-hand experience of making or selling cheese.
The market in Carlow continues to be an outlet though Tom confesses that he no longer mans the stall there in person, while shoppers at markets in Naas and Farmleigh also snap up supplies.
The Burgesses feed into the high prestige Avoca Handweavers chain, where Alice and Lucy sometimes conduct tasting sessions.
Tom is happy that his cheddar is on the menu at some of the country's best restaurants and that the Harrods department store in London places regular orders.
He lets slip that it is not unknown for the Irish embassy in London to request a ration of his finest.
The reputation of the cheese has been more publicly acknowledged through a series of awards which began with a breakthrough in Cardiff six years ago.
At a black tie event in the Welsh capital, the West Wicklow contestants were called up to receive gold at the British Cheese Awards ceremony.
At Ballymaloe in Cork recently, adjudicators from America, the UK and Germany pronounced Mount Leinster supreme champion at the bi-annual Irish Cheese Awards - regaining the title claimed in 2015.
Tom was too busy to attend a world cheese event at San Sebastian in the heart of Spain's gourmet Basque country earlier this year when his entry struck bronze.
Each day, from May to September, the converted stone-walled cow house at the farm yard in Knockeen takes in 2,000 litres of grass-fed milk, enough to yield 200 kilos of solid matter.
With the shackles of the European quota system removed, and with demand for both Coolattin Cheddar and Mount Leinster growing, the Burgess herd has been expanding.
Where there used to be 60 cows, now there are 140, with a strong jersey strain mixed in with the black-and-whites.
Their raw morning milk is pumped into the former cow barn, which is a model of hygiene in its new incarnation, flowing into a gleaming stainless steel bath.
The starter pack of dried cheddar is a tiny but vital part of the mix stirred into the bath, along with the rennet which causes the liquid whey to separate out.
The remaining solids are repeatedly cut into smaller and smaller pieces while a close control is maintained on temperature and bacterial activity is checked by the addition of salt.
By the end of the working day, the immature cheese has been pressed into moulds, soon to be transferred to the wooden shelves of the maturing room where the air is a constant 12 degrees.
Some cheeses are released after nine months but some rings, each one a foot in diameter, may be kept for as long as two years.
'It is hard physical work,' says Tom of cheese making and the results each time are subtly different - a fine antidote to a world where so much food we eat each day is mass-produced with little or no craftsmanship.
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