Irish Cheese

Ireland has a long, rich history of dairying and cheesemaking that dates back over 6,000 years. Its temperate climate and lush pastures mean that cows graze on pasture for up to 300 days of the year. The conditions are naturally ideal for producing high quality dairy in a sustainable environment. Irish dairy farms are mostly family owned, with roughly 17,000 multigenerational family-owned dairy farms. And they are relatively small, with an average herd size around 100 cows. Today, through Origin Green, Ireland’s national food and drink sustainability program (the only of its kind in the world,) dairy farmers, scientists, and the government work together to reduce carbon emissions in the dairy sector.

Yet, farmhouse cheese production was lost in Ireland when during the 16th through 18th century cheese production disappeared. The reasons are not exactly clear, but a combination of factors include English colonialism, the competitive market conditions of industrialism, and tariffs. 

Although traditional recipes appear lost to time, today, Ireland is experiencing a revival of farmhouse cheesemaking. Starting in the 1970s, a few ambitious Irish farmers, spearheaded by a small group of women from West Cork in southwestern Ireland, decided to commit themselves to the incredibly difficult task of making farmstead, artisanal cheeses.

In 1983, Cáis (which means cheese in Irish) the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association was formed. The mission of Cáis is simple: provide a platform for and educate about the art of farmhouse cheesemaking. When Cáis was formed, the founding members defined farmhouse cheese as follows:

  1. Milk from one source or a limited number of local sources
  2. Hand made
  3. Small scale production
  4. Only raw milk used

While the members have loosened the restriction of only using raw milk (raw milk cheeses now have a special categorization), the quest for the highest quality of small batch cheese making remains. It is estimated that more than 200 different farmhouse cheeses are produced by 70 cheese makers in Ireland.

To celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we decided to highlight some of these cheesemakers. We even have some cheeses from the very women who founded Cáis and continue to make delicious cheese to this day! Gubbeen, Coolea, and Durrus are still produced on family-owned and operated farms by the very people who defined what it means to be an Irish farmhouse cheese maker. In addition, we have two Kerrygold distributed cheeses: Cashel Blue, the very first blue cheese native to Ireland, and Whiskey Cheddar, a delightfully sweet and smooth cheddar infused with Irish Whiskey.

Whiskey Cheddar – Kerrygold

Pasteurized cow’s milk

The spirit of old Irish cheesemaking may be well and alive in such a cheese as this, one that blends two traditions of Ireland; dairy and whiskey. It is believed that the monastic cheesemakers of Ireland brought their recipes and skills along with them on missionary business throughout Europe where they had a strong influence on cheesemaking. Tracing the history of cheese is complicated, with traditions traveling the world over, but it is possible that these medieval Irish monks influenced all sorts of cheeses, from Gouda to Munster. And, reputedly, they brought whiskey cheddar to Scotland.

This version from Kerrygold is made from grass-fed milk. Irish Whiskey is stirred directly into the milk before culturing and draining the curd. The result is an intense infusion of sweet, green apple notes into the classic nuttiness of Kerrygold cheddar.

Coolea – Coolea Farmhouse Cheese

Pasteurized cow’s milk

Made by Dick and Helene Willems, founding members of Cáis. The Willems family moved from the Netherlands to Coolea in the Derrynasaggart Mountains in West Cork and took the traditions of Dutch cheesemaking with them.

Coolea is named for the town where it is made, Cúil Aodha, which when Anglicized, becomes Coolea (pronounced kool-ay). Coolea is made in a similar style to aged gouda, where the curds are washed, heated, pressed into molds, then aged for 18 to 24 months. The resulting cheese is crystally, caramelly, and delicious. Today, the cheese is made by Dicky Willems, son of Dick and Helene, who now focus on events and promotion.

Gubbeen – Gubbeen Farmhouse Cheese

Made by Giana and Tom Ferguson, founding member of Cáis. The Ferguson family has owned Gubbeen Farm in Schull, West Cork by the Atlantic Ocean for six generations. Named after the Townland in County Cork where the farm is located, “Gubbeen” is an anglicization of the Irish word goibín which means a small beak or mouth.

Through the generations as a family farm, it’s always been a dairy farm, but Giana and her father-in-law William Ferguson began experimenting with cheesemaking in the 1970s. These experiments ended up producing a funky washed-rind cheese. Gubbeen is a classic squishy, melt in your mouth washed-rind. It is super meaty even when it’s young, with big onion notes when it gets more ripe.

Durrus – Durrus Cheese

Pasteurized cow’s milk

Made by Jeffa Gill, founding member of Cáis, and a former fashion designer in London and Dublin. Jeffa bought a farm in Coomkeen near Durrus in West Cork in 1979. With experience coming from a farming family, Gill was one of many Irish women in West Cork sparking the Irish farmhouse cheese revolution. She first started making cheese in a pan on her kitchen stove using the milk of her eight cows.

With the help of friend Ann McGrath and daughter Sarah Hennessy, Jeffa continues to make Durrus to this day. In early 2020, Jeffa was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for her contribution to Irish Food from the Irish Food Writers Guild.

The texture of Durrus is semisoft, with occasional small holes, or “eyes.” Flavors are balanced with notes of bacon, almonds, fruit and spices. The rind is edible but quite strong and tastes slightly of barnyard.

Cashel Blue – J&L Grubb

First made by Louis and Jane Grubb, founding member of Cáis. After Louis’ father Samuel passed away in 1979, Louis and his wife Jane returned to the Grubb family’s Beechmount Farm in Dripsey, County Cork and invested everything they had into a herd of 90 cows. In the early 80’s, Jane begins to experiment with cheesemaking, successfully making several locally popular cheeses like Ballingarry and Fethard. The big one comes in 1984: Cashel Blue, the first blue cheese in Ireland. In the 40 years since Cashel first made it to market, it has won countless awards, and it’s easy to see why. It’s buttery and rich, with a sharp tang and a hint of sweetness. Still made on Beechmount Farm to this day, it is one of the most iconic Irish artisanal cheeses.

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