French (and Italian, and Spanish) cheese is all about tradition, history, standards, and technique. To make AOC Roquefort, milk from only Lacaune, Manech and Basco-Béarnaise breeds of sheep must be injected with Penicillium roqueforti and aged in the natural Combalou caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon. Roquefort is roquefort is roquefort; it's been more or less identical for centuries.
Leaving the world of French (and Italian, and Spanish) cheese for Irish cheese is a departure in ethos. Over lunch and cheese with Breda of Cooleeney Farm, a small cheesemaking operation in Tipperary, run by her and her family, I learned that Irish cheesemaking is an entirely different animal. "It's about the passion and the creativity of the cheesemaker," Breda says.
The plot of Irish cheesemaking thickened in the 1970s and 80s. By that time, a long dairying tradition had suffered and died at the hands of a few hundred years of industrialization. The country's "cheese" now consisted of processed, soulless cheesestuff.
And then something happened. A revolution, at first ploddingly slow and barely noticeable. A few impassioned pioneers pursued the difficult craft of making small-batch farmstead cheese (which means the cheese is made on the farm where the animals are milked). Since the milk doesn't travel, there is a strong sense of place—the cheese tastes like the pastures of which the goats or cows grazed.
One of the first was Veronica Steele, who began making Milleens—an experiment gone very right—on the barren Beara peninsula of South West Ireland. Under the pinkish rind of Milleens is layer upon layer of sweet, flowery depth. She was joined by another, and another. Today, a few dozen Irish cheesemakers, many of them women, have refined their craft and built a whole new world of Irish cheese. In the generations upon generations of food tradition, they are all new and novel.
Irish cheeses are defined by the personalities of their creators, by erratic weather, and by wild landscapes. With no rulebooks and a history of tiny farms doing their own thing, the Irish cheese landscape is one of small volume, seasonal products, and funky finds. This makes the cheeses a challenge to keep consistently stocked in stores. It also makes discovering Irish cheese a particularly rewarding endeavor. When you've found something cool, you've really found something.
Breda introduced me to six different Irish cheeses, from a creamy and whispering-mild one to crumbly and bursting with rugged, salty, punchy intensity. Yet they all shared a certain earthiness, a mustiness. Perhaps it is in the act of distinguishing themselves from their factory-made stepsiblings that these cheeses are character central. They look, smell, and taste human-made. They put the "farm" in "farmstead cheese."
Breda and her husband, Pat, are the fourth generation of Mahers to work the land at Cooleeney, outside Thurles. Her kids make generation five. The couple has been crafting cheese here since 1986, from the family's own herd of pedigree Friesians.
Several years ago, "when we started importing our cheeses to the US, people were not interested in one, two, or three cheeses. They wanted a whole lot." And so Breda teamed up with other farmstead cheesemakers and began introducing Americans to a complex yet approachable collection of handmade Irish cheese. She's friendly, cultured, witty, and a sort of spokesperson for the wonder of Irish cheese. We began unwrapping her bounty, lopping off chunks.
Here are 6 of my favorites!