From a little vat came a winning cheese business
Gone are the days when cheddar came in two basic varieties, white and orange, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
Charles de Gaulle famously asked how anyone could govern a nation that had 246 different kinds of cheese. That was many years ago, when Ireland knew only processed cheese of the luminous variety, and perhaps a simple cheddar. I know, I know, someone will say that there is no such thing as a simple cheddar, but you get my drift, the option was a white or orange cheddar -- very tasty indeed, but that was it. It was also a time when cheese boards pre or apres pudding were most certainly not de rigueur in middle class households.
I remember my first encounter with exotic cheese was when, as a child with my mother, I was taken to the Lafayette Room of the old Royal Hibernian Hotel, by her brother. He was a priest who, on returning each year from his foreign holiday, would take us "somewhere nice". Priests always recognised good food. I have never forgotten the hors d'oeuvre trolley in the Hibernian, nor indeed blotting my copy book when the camembert arrived, as I said "but uncle, it smells like old socks," in front of the sniffy French waiter!
It was always French cheese boards in restaurants, but now I look with great pride when I see restaurants listing an Irish cheese board. We have so many wonderful cheeses here now from amazing industrious little artisan producers, that they give the international cheese makers a run for their money. Indeed, Helen Finnegan of Knockdrinna Farmhouse Cheese of Stoneyford in Kilkenny has done more than that by winning Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards 2011 for her Knockdrinna Kilree Goat Cheese.
An amazing achievement out of almost 1,000 cheeses and it is incredible to think that she only started in the cheese business just over seven years ago.
Helen came to cheese-making in a roundabout way. Married to farmer Robert, with three children, Eoin 20, Colm 17, and Grainne 14, she also has a Masters in Applied Social Studies. "I did a lot of work in community development and community enterprise, that kind of work," she explains.
Helen's last job was as Community Enterprise Officer with Kilkenny County Council working on local development projects. "I always wanted to do something around food myself. When I went to school in the height of the last recession, around 1985, there was no work in the food sector, and it was certainly not as cool as it is now to be in food."
Helen says when she was working, she used to go out to lunch and think there is something really satisfying in feeding people. "You wash up afterwards, and then that's your day's work done. I still have that feeling about food, even when we make a batch of cheese, clean up afterwards, it goes into the curing room, and you can have a great satisfaction that you have done your day's work. That was what I was looking for and it certainly does give me that buzz."
Helen started experimenting in her kitchen at home. "I had a friend, Elizabeth Bradley of Carlow cheese, who started to make cheese at the same time. She showed me the basics, and I started to experiment with a cheese-making kit that I bought on the internet." Her next step on her cheese making career was to call out a local dairy inspector. "We had a little back kitchen on our house and I asked him about converting it into somewhere to make cheese. He was great, he helped us to do that and to meet all the regulations. We bought a little secondhand 120-litre vat and we made cheese in this little vat. Our cheese press was two axe handles with a little weight hanging out of the wall. We made some great cheese in that little room, and we made some terrible cheese in that little room as well," Helen says
with a laugh. "We have some of the best fed foxes in the country in Stoneyford."
Helen then started selling her cheese at farmers' markets, and 18 months later added a purpose-built unit at the back of their home. "We started with goats cheese, because that is my own personal favourite, and then when we were selling at the markets, there were a lot of enquiries about sheep's cheese for people with a dairy intolerance. We always made a hard goat cheese, Knockdrinna Gold, but hard cheeses are a long time in the curing room so there is money tied up for a long, long time, and that was causing us a lot of difficulties, so we looked at developing a cheese that would mature more quickly, so we developed a washed rind goats cheese called Kilree."
They entered it in the British Cheese Awards last year and it swept the boards, winning Supreme Champion 2011.
Two people work in the cheese room along with Helen. She also has a farm shop and cafe in Stoneyford selling their cheeses, which include Knockdrinna Gold, Knockdrinna Meadow Sheep Cheese, Knockdrinna Snow, Knockdrinna Kilree, and Lavistown. They also sell free-range pork, dry-cured rashers and 100 per cent pork sausages. They also sell other local products such as Highbank Syrups, Goatsbridge smoked trout and caviar, Happy Heart rapeseed oil, local juices, vegetables, chutneys, "whatever anybody is making in the vicinity, they bring it to us and we sell it. We make quiches with our cheeses, and we have a nice menu in our cafe of locally produced food and we also have a little bit of a pet farm with ducks, pigs, sheep, hens, geese, miniature ponies, so it gives people an outing."
Price is hugely challenging, Helen says, because first ly, their cheese is made with goat's milk, which is expensive to produce. Secondly, when you are making an artisan cheese, there is a lot of labour involved. "All our rinds are natural rinds, they are washed and turned three times a week, so it does make the cheese expensive and that is the real challenge at the moment, because, whilst people might like that kind of taste, money for those treats is more difficult so it tends to be a special occasion treat. That presents us with difficulties, because obviously we have to make our cheese all year round."
When Knockdrinna Kilree won the Supreme Champion, that was the best of 904 cheeses, and the award had only been won by two Irish cheesemakers in the past. "It is a huge thrill for us to have achieved that but it is still very challenging for us to grow sales. Right across the board, everybody is finding that difficulty. The UK is our natural market and is very challenging as well, because again, people don't have the money for those kind of treats so they go down the list of priorities on the weekly shop.
"We are doing well considering it's such a tough environment out there at the moment. We know that people don't have much money to spend on specialty products but, having said that, I do find there is a great commitment to buying Irish from Irish producers and small companies like us, which really makes a difference. It's when people regularly choose our product that we get the volume of sales we need. We see Kilree as where the growth in sales will come. Kilree is Ireland's only washed- rind goat's cheese, so it fills a gap in the market."
Helen feels our hotel and restaurant trade could do a lot more. "We have some great customers here locally in Kilkenny. I'll give you a really good example of what's possible. There is a small cafe in Thomastown -- The Blackberry Cafe -- which has Knockdrinna cheeses on the lunch menu every day. They buy more cheese from me than any hotel we do business with, even though they have a tiny proportion of the customers that a hotel has coming through their doors. This is the volume of sales that we really need. It would really make a difference to us if some of the bigger hotels put Knockdrinna on their daily menus, not just on the cheese board every now and again. It's all very well to get a mention in some very nice establishments, which we do, but this doesn't make any impression on my bank balance. So, I put a challenge out there to the bigger establishments who are making a commitment to supporting local suppliers -- put us on your daily menu, on your bar food menu, help us get a decent volume of sales through. This is what smaller producers need to survive.
"Our future is very much linked to being able to increase our volume of sales," Helen says, explaining further that they have made some good inroads into the UK market, and have listings with some of the more upmarket cheese shops such as Paxton and Whitfield, and the Fine Cheese Company in Bath. "But volumes are small at the moment, so it's a big challenge to increase volumes, given that the UK economy is struggling just as much as the Irish economy. We also have some customers in Germany and Holland, and will be starting in Dubai in the autumn.
"There are a lot of opportunities on the horizon for us. We are at the moment working with some strategic partners to help us put the best structure in place to move forward, and for me that's what it's all about. You won't survive by putting your head in the sand and waiting for things to get better, you have to find creative ways to do what you want to do, and that's what we are doing at the moment. There is no doubt about it that these are challenging times, but for me, the glass is always half full."