Ireland's big Cheese family
When a young woman with a dog and a tent arrived to West Cork and met a local farmer 40 years ago, it was the beginnings, not just of a love story, but of an iconic food brand. Now, as Gubbeen Farmhouse gets a lifetime achievement award, Giana Fergusson tells our reporter how the family business was born
It's hard to imagine a time when there was no Irish artisanal food produce as we know it today, and no farmers' markets where you might seek out hand-crafted foods or freshly harvested ingredients from the land and the sea. Indeed, it's hard to imagine a West Cork that wasn't always synonymous with those things, and with the community of creative thinkers and craftspeople that helped bring Ireland's modern food culture into being.
But that was the West Cork that Giana Ferguson arrived to in the early 1970s with a Kerry collie and a tent in tow, joining what she describes in Gubbeen: The Story of a Working Farm and Its Foods as an influx of well-educated hippies seeking an alternative to Cold War Europe or Thatcherite Britain.
"It doesn't seem that long ago," Giana says. "But I certainly think of that as another life, just drifting about with my dog and my tent. Now my life is committed to what I do." Rhythmic and vaguely wistful, Giana's voice carries faint residues of an Austro-Hungarian-via-London-and-Andalucia accent acquired throughout her nomadic post-war childhood. Listening to her talk would put you in mind of the soft rain that might come in across the small mouthful ('goibín') of a bay that the Gubbeen townland is named after. Or perhaps of the nuances of nutty, creamy, mushroomy flavours in her singular washed-rind cheese.
That cheese is as much an expression of Giana's personality as it is of the 250 coastal acres of boggy, brine-washed land that five generations of Fergusons have farmed here just outside Schull; and of the mixed herd of Fresian, Jersey and Kerry cows that her husband, Tom, has hand-bred; and of the 'microbacterium Gubbeenense' and other bacterial flora particular to the farm's small dairy where the live rind is washed every day.
Earlier this week, Giana, her husband, Tom, and their two children, Fingal and Clovisse, were honoured by the Irish Food Writers' Guild with a Lifetime Achievement Award. At its annual Food Awards ceremony in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud, the Guild recognised the Ferguson family of Gubbeen Farmhouse as "one of the finest examples Ireland has of the contribution that can be made to a national food culture by a few dedicated individuals".
While each member of the family has honed their own expertise at Gubbeen Farmhouse, their individual businesses have evolved as a symbiotic collective. The milk from Tom's grass-fed dairy herd makes Giana's cheese, which makes the whey that is fed to Fingal's pigs, the meat of which is cured and flavoured with herbs grown in Clovisse's biodynamic market garden.
Clovisse also sells farmhouse produce at the local farmers' market that her parents were instrumental in establishing, as well as to a network of local bastions of modern Irish cooking, like Carmel Somers' Good Things Café.
Fingal's self-built smokehouse is the hub not just of his own pioneering charcuterie business, but an essential resource for other start-up food businesses such as Baltimore Bacon (whose range of smoked and cured bacon also won an IFWG Food Award this year).
Meanwhile, the Piggy Coop, set up by Fingal to supplement Gubbeen's own farm-reared pigs, now provides a route to market for smallholders who rear traditional breeds outdoors or in straw pens - a concession to the fact that cloven-hoofed animals hate rain, an inevitability of West Cork winters. Animals for his 'Gubbeen Cured' range are supplied by Stauntons of Timoleague who source pigs from farms within Munster, allowing him to grow the commercial reach of the business while offering premium produce to those customers who seek it. The result is that you'll find Gubbeen chorizo and salamis on the best chef's menus as well as on supermarket shelves throughout the country.
Of course, none of this could have been foreseen by Giana that first night she pulled a pint in a local pub for the striking young farmer who was to become the grandfather of her four grandsons. But it didn't take long for things to fall into place. "As soon as I arrived in Ireland I remember having a sense of having come home," she says. "And it was very obvious to me from the first day that I met Tom that he was very special."
Giana comes from a family of writers, some of whom had known fairly exotic places as home. During his four decades of British Colonial Service, Giana's Eton-educated grandfather Sir Harry Luke was stationed in destinations as far-flung as Transcaucasia (present-day Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan), Sierra Leone and Fiji. A prolific writer, his 1954 cookbook, The Tenth Muse: A Gourmet's Compendium, chronicles the flavours, foods and culinary cultures that enamoured him during his extensive travels.
Luke's love of food had an enormous influence on Giana, who lived with him for a period while her parents were separating. Later visits to her father in his new life in the Andalusian mountains kindled her understanding that from land comes food, and her early fascination with "the miracle" of turning liquid milk solid. "We made fresh cheese from goat's milk every day," she recalls. "We would add a drop of lemon and hang it up in muslin by a sunny window." But it was a visit to her uncle - another writer - during his time living in Inishbeg, just beyond Baltimore, that gave a teenage Giana the West Cork bug.
Tom, on the other hand, comes from a family of resourceful farmers and open-minded innovators. In the 1880s, his great-grandfather introduced a system of milk separation to the area that allowed small farmers feed skimmed milk to their calves and make butter with the cream to sell at Cork's butter market, which supplied much of the British colonies. Tom's mother Mary was a founding member of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, and ran one of the country's earliest farm guesthouses where her excellent cooking skills and the farmstead's Aga range were put to good use feeding large gatherings of guests every summer. "Tom grew up in a household of women who talked and talked about food," says Giana, who clearly fit right in. "And for me, a farmhouse and a farm family made a lot of sense. I loved it from the moment I met it."
The pair married in 1975, and Giana quickly put her mind to making use of the "gift of perfect milk every morning". When she decided to convert the lambing shed into a tiny dairy, Tom's father William Ferguson - "the gentlest, kindest of men" - was right behind her.
"The father-in-law is a very important person in your life if you're on a farm, and he really was an exceptional man and a good friend to me. Whatever ideas I came up with, he'd just quietly come along and help me put them into practice," Giana says. Before the decade turned, she was one of a handful of pioneers selling cheese produced on their small Irish farms; all of them 'blow-ins' who had found a new home in West Cork. "I always felt that my back was covered."
One turning point for Gubbeen Farmhouse was when Giana's washed-rind cheese won a silver medal at the RDS Show in 1989. Realising that people appreciated what they were doing spurred Giana to "get serious and see if we can do this really well". Soon the tiny dairy became a small dairy, though they never expanded beyond the capacity of the farm's own milk.
Another was the decision to foster the farmers' market culture beloved of her sojourns in France and Spain, where food was something sourced from farmers, fishermen and producers and not from supermarket shelves. "We really had to work hard to get them going. We latched onto the fair days and the market days when the animals were being sold. Soon enough it was as if it had always been there."
Hard work didn't deter Fingal or Clovisse from following their parents into the farmhouse business, with both children developing their own paths early on. "Clovisse always had those grubby little fingers in the ground, even when she was tiny," Giana says, while Fingal followed a natural progression from the farm to focus on rearing pigs and learned his smokehouse craft from family friend Chris Jepson. It helped, Giana believes, that they saw Tom and herself having fun with their chosen life.
"We were very, very happy as they grew up. Luckily, they didn't have to fight too hard," she continues, "as most of the rules for food regulation had been eked out and written by then, so they knew how they had to do it. It wasn't such a mystery for them as it had been for all of us!"
She is being modest, of course. That inheritance of explicit regulations to guide fledging artisan food businesses was less down to whimsical luck than to the hard graft of the Fergusons and their fellow founding members of CÁIS, the Association of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers, which was established in 1983 and inspired the Specialist Cheesemakers Association in the UK. And that hard-won experience has benefited not just the next generation of small-scale food producers in Ireland but also emerging and developing farmhouse cheese movements on either sides of the Atlantic. This was achieved through connections established at the Slow Food Cheese festival in Bra, Italy, and visits made to California by Giana, along with Jeffa Gill of Durrus Cheese, where they shared their knowledge with pioneers of the farmstead cheesemaking movement.
Giana is not someone to speak comfortably of anything so flashy as pride, but when pushed on what she is proudest of, she has an impressive list to choose from. Top of that list is the fact that, between those four symbiotic businesses, they employ 20 people. Quite the achievement for a small farm on one of Ireland's most remote peninsulas.
She's proud too, if she'll permit me saying, of Tom: "It doesn't matter what you ask him to do, he'll do it with a smile". When really pushed, she allows herself the acknowledgment of an important job well done. "Sometimes when I look back and I see my old grandfather and his cookery book, and the love of food that came down through my family to me, and I think of how I've passed that on - well, it's nice to have passed on something so positive. And to have made a go of it. So again, it's not about pride, but there's a good sense of 'we did it!'"
They certainly did, as this week's Lifetime Achievement Award acknowledges. And Irish food is all the richer for it. So, what achievements does Giana wish for those lifetimes to come?
"It sounds clichéd," she says, "but just that they'd enjoy it as much as we have. Because if you get up in the morning and you can't wait to get back to what you're doing, you're really blessed. So I'd wish that for them, for the four little boys."
The Irish Food Writers' Guild presented its annual Food Awards in Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud this week, where executive chef Guillaume Lebrun served a bespoke menu showcasing the award-winning produce. Recipes and more information on all the winners listed below can be found at irishfoodwritersguild.ie.