Thursday 22 August 2019

Say cheese and keep smiling

Cashel Blue makers Sergio and Sarah Furno have a passion for food but try to steer clear of too much shop talk

'Well, I brought an Italian all the way to Ireland, so I thought it was only fair to take his surname," explains Tipperary woman Sarah Furno, the only child of Jane and Louis Grubb, founders of the Cashel Blue cheese company.

Sarah and her husband Sergio own the cheese-producing company in conjunction with her parents, and they live on the farm with their three children, Luca, 8, Anna, 6, and baby Leila, 8 weeks. The adorable baby accompanied the couple to Dublin for this interview while her older siblings were in school, although Sarah is technically on maternity leave. She plans to take four months off, she says, which is longer than she took on her previous children. However, it being a family business, it is not entirely possible to switch off altogether.

The whole process of making cheese came about as Sarah's parents owned a dairy farm, and had borrowed heavily to establish it. As it was the "depressing time of butter mountains and intervention," her mother Jane, who previously worked as a chef, came up with the idea of using the excess milk they produced to make chocolate and ice cream. Then she did a cheese-making course in 1980 and realised that nobody in Ireland was making blue cheese, so she borrowed a book from the library, developed her own recipe, and starting making Cashel Blue in the farmhouse.

She and Louis began selling at country markets, where the award-winning creamy blue cheese was an instant hit. From there, they started exporting it to speciality shops in London, and one aspect that pleased them greatly is the fact that they provided local employment through the business. Sarah recalls spending holidays visiting cheese-makers in France, and loved the variety of people and influences they encountered along the way. Today, the cheese is still made at the farmhouse and available nationwide, with 32,000 wheels of cheese maturing at any one time in the cellars. They produce both Cashel Blue and Crozier Blue – the latter being made from sheep's milk by Sarah's first cousins, Henry and Louis Clifton Brown.

Sergio has a colourful background as his father was an arable farmer from Lenta in northern Italy, while his mother was half-Arab, half-Scottish. They met in Nigeria, where his dad had gone to work as a civil engineer, and his mum was also living there with her parents. Sergio and his older sister were born in Nigeria. He's a real Christmas baby, jokes Sarah, as he was born to his mother Mary in the city of Jos, which means 'Jesus our Saviour'. Sergio's parents separated when he was five, and his mother moved to Hampshire, England. He lived between his mother's house and his father's in Italy – his dad subsequently remarried and Sergio now has a younger half-brother.

Sarah and Sergio, now both 38, met while at university in Aberystwyth in Wales. She was doing a degree in European studies with French, and he was studying languages. They met in a pub in 1992 during their very first week at college, and became friends. They had a shared passion for food, and when Sergio went home to Italy he would bring back bags of rice, and he and Sarah would swap rice and cheese and make risottos.

As part of their respective language courses, Sergio lived for a year in Madrid and Nice, while Sarah was in Paris. They kept in contact, and ultimately came to realise that there was bit more to their relationship than mere friendship. Once they were back at college in Wales, the relationship finally moved to a new level.

"It was very exciting," recalls Sarah, who says that she was intrigued by the fact that Sergio had so many influences in his life. "We'd waited long enough as we were a bit scared to wreck the friendship. And then, when we got together, we probably isolated ourselves in a little bubble for a while and neglected our poor friends."

After graduation, Sarah and Sergio moved to work in London, where they developed their careers in the area of wine. Having started her career with Oddbins, Sarah moved back to Ireland in 1998, and worked with Wines Direct, followed by Findlaters. Sergio joined her here and they were married in 2001 in Cashel. A week later, they were living in a tent and picking grapes in the Languedoc region of France, and say that the fact that they were friends for so long helped them to survive that particular challenge. They spent months moving around France and Italy, developing their wine knowledge and skills, and then came back to live in Tipperary. They had seen that the cheese business had grown and Sarah's father was doing too much by himself, so they decided to build on the business that was already there and take what they learned in the wine trade and apply it to the Cashel Blue company. Sarah is involved in cheese-tasting and the running of the farm, while Sergio works in the area of cheese-maturing and grading, and is also involved at milk level.

The pair are passionate about food, and they love to cook and experiment. Sarah says that Sergio's best quality is his kindness, and his worst is that he can be a bit stubborn. Living and working together can sometimes mean that the personal relationship is permeated by a lot of 'shop' talk, so Sarah and Sergio say that they are quite strict about not talking about work at home. It's not very healthy, she says, although he says that she is the one who finds that hardest as she grew up steeped in the business.

"Sarah finds it harder to switch off," he says. "Her best qualities are that she is very passionate about everything and she's very open as well."

www.cashelblue.com

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