Rich and delicious: Have you tried sheep's milk ice-cream yet?
A team of artisan food entrepreneurs are making sheep's milk ice-cream from their farm in the Glen of Imaal. Katy McGuinness spends a day with them...
It's a crisp morning in the Glen of Imaal in west Wicklow, just an hour's drive from Dublin city centre, yet as rural as it gets. The area is, of course, known for its army camp - somewhere that the defence forces practise manoeuvres - as well as the breed of handsome, loyal and spirited terrier that is named after it.
It's also the location of Ballyhubbock Farm, where a new and innovative artisan food business making sheep's milk ice-cream has recently been set up.
Ballyhubbock is already the base of an award-winning bakery run by Olive Finlay - this morning she's making lemon drizzle cakes with duck eggs for a lighter crumb and texture - in a production facility adjacent to the farm house. It's a lovely thing to behold, a true one-woman operation that's efficient, methodical and careful - it makes me want to seek out her cakes at the first opportunity.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the quiet country road, with views out over the valley with Lugnaquilla looming in the distance, is a milking parlour.
Once this was used for dairy cattle, and then as a lambing unit, but it's been adapted and re-purposed for milking sheep, with the milk used to make artisan ice-cream in small batches. George Finlay, son of Olive, the farmer behind the venture, and his fiancée, Hanna Sheerin, believe it to be the first of its kind in Ireland.
"My father - also George - has always had sheep and suckler cattle on the farm," says George, who was 'sheep student of the year' at Kildalton Agricultural College in Piltown, Co Kilkenny where he studied.
"But even with 400 commercial sheep - for meat - the economics don't make sense. We wanted to develop something to which we could add value, so we started milking a flock of 30 milking ewes back in the spring. I always wanted to milk sheep, to do something a bit different."
"I gave him a bit of a nudge," says Hanna, who works as a research officer with Teagasc. Although she doesn't come from a farming background, her dad, Jim, is a vet and she is from the local area. "We watch a lot of farming programmes and we got the idea from one of those. We milked a commercial ewe and started experimenting with making ice-cream ourselves before we made the leap and invested in the flock and equipment."
The 'girls' (as Hanna and George refer to them) seem happy enough trotting in to be milked, lining up obediently in their allotted spaces to eat a few nuts while the milking apparatus - a cluster - is attached. The milk starts to flow and, when it ebbs, to encourage a second let-down of milk, George gives each ewe a 'puck' - a tug on their teats intended to imitate the suckle of a lamb - and more milk flows. Before and after each milking, each ewe's 'spins' (teats) are wiped with antiseptic lotion to prevent fly strike and mastitis.
"The quality of the milk is our number one priority," says George.
Currently he is milking 20 ewes each day, and between them they generate in the region of 24 litres of milk - far less than the quantity generated by cows.
"The East Friesland breed is best for milking," says George, "and the milk has double the amount of protein and is higher in vitamins, minerals and fat than cow's milk."
"Unlike cow's milk," says Hanna, "the sheep's milk is naturally homogenised, which means that the fat droplets are evenly dispersed and the milk does not separate in the same way as cow's milk. It makes for a really creamy consistency that's ideal for ice-cream."
"We do not use antibiotics, so even though we are not certified organic we operate as if we are," says George. "Aside from the few nuts that the sheep get in the parlour, everything that they eat is pasture and we don't use sprays or fertiliser on the land."
The ewes are milked twice a day and the milk passes directly into a bulk tank housed in the outbuilding adjacent to the milking parlour.
Happily for George and Hanna, George's sister, Amanda Finlay, is a trained chef and she has come on board the fledgling business on the culinary side.
Amanda worked in the US and France (at the highly regarded Le Chat Botté near La Rochelle) as well as at Dunloe Castle and for high-end catering operation, Baxter Storey, at Gonzaga College, before committing to the new family business.
"First we pasteurise the milk and then we make a basic custard with Ballon free-range eggs and a little sugar," says Amanda. "Sheep's milk is naturally sweet so you need to add less sugar than you would to cow's milk. The custard goes into the ice-cream machine for about 40/45 minutes and you have ice-cream: our basic flavour is made of just milk, sugar and eggs."
The flavour is rich and delicious, with none of the sour taste that one might expect. Currently there are five flavours - plain, vanilla, chocolate ganache, lemon curd and raspberry crumble - with all the flavourings made fresh from scratch in-house by Amanda. (I also tasted the chocolate ganache flavour, and it's excellent too.) George's favourite is the raspberry crumble, and Amanda's is the lemon curd. Hanna can't make up her mind - "Do I have to pick just one?"
The ice-cream is currently available at The Green Barn at Burtown House and in Donnybrook Fair, with further outlets expected to be added in the coming weeks. The ice-cream will be of interest to those who do not eat conventional dairy products because of intolerance or allergy, who may find that ice-cream made from sheep's milk is easier to digest.
George stopped milking the sheep last month to allow them to dry off, and reckons that he will get about five years' milking out of each sheep before they are fattened and go into the food chain as meat.
Currently, George is sourcing all his sheep within Ireland, mainly from Co Clare, but says that because the gene pool is relatively limited he expects to have to venture further afield - to Germany and the Netherlands - to get more stock in the future.
He hopes eventually to expand the flock to between 200/300 milking ewes and is in the process of reclaiming land on the farm to provide more pasture for a larger herd.
"Making sheep's cheese will be the next step," says George, "but we decided on ice-cream as the first venture as it's a simpler product and requires less investment. The know-how required for cheese-making means that will take a little longer but it's definitely something we plan to go into."
Ireland has a great tradition of wonderful artisan food products developing out of the need for farm diversification - just think of Gubbeen bacon, charcuterie and cheese, and Glenilen Farm yoghurts, cream and cheesecakes.
Ballyhubbock Farm ice-cream follows in those footsteps. It's heartening to see a new generation demonstrating that an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit is alive and well in the Irish farming community.