Irish Cheeses and Cheese Traditions
In the early part of the 20th century cheese making in Ireland was mainly confined to large scale factories that concentrated on nothing more than making Cheddar. How remarkable it is that today the country is most well known for distinctive, modern farmhouse cheeses made on small, family-run farms.
It all began in the late 1970s when some enterprising Irish dairy farmers began experimenting in artisan cheese making. Cheese makers like farmhouse pioneer Jeffa Gill who turned out her first batch of Durrus on her kitchen stovetop. There’s maybe no other place where cheese makers are known by their family names. Ireland is home to the Bruns, the Willems, the Grubbs, and the Fergusons – they’ve been crafting Gubbeen on their West Cork farm for five generations.
Is it any wonder then that so many of Ireland’s cheeses have won awards and acclaim throughout the world? Artistry, pride and craftsmanship are evident in every delicious bite. Here are some great Irish farmhouse cheeses to try:
ArdrahanThis award-winning vegetarian cow’s milk cheese is made exclusively on the family farm of Eugene and Mary Burns in Duhallow. This area of County Cork is known for its clean, rich pastures and cheeses of distinct, complex flavours. Reminiscent of Swiss Appenzeller or young Gruyère, Ardrahan has a creamy, nutty palate and a refreshing zest of acidity. The wheel-shaped cheese has a brine-washed rind that’s ridged and covered with brown, grey and yellow moulds. Inside, the yellow interior is firm, slightly chalky and brimming with a distinctive earthy aroma.
Cashel BlueOne of the few Irish blues, this cylinder-shaped cow’s milk variety is made by Jane and Louis Grubbs in the rolling hills of Tipperary. The table cheese has a wet, crusty rind with grey mould and a firm, yet moist interior. With hints of fresh tarragon and white wine, Cashel Blue is an interesting alternative to your usual Gorgonzola or Stilton. It’s mild, creamy and not too salty when young, and a bit spicier and rounder with age. Available in pasteurised, unpasteurised and vegetarian versions, the award-winning cheese is ideal for melting, spreading on warm bread or enjoying after dinner with a sip of Port.
CooleaMade by Dick and Helene Willems in the hills of County Cork, Coolea is often described as an Irish version of Gouda. However, grazing pastures full of wild Irish herbs give this raw cow’s milk cheese a much richer, fruitier flavour. Mature Coolea, aged for over six months, is more piquant, but maintains a fresh, tangy aftertaste.
CooleeneyThis variety of soft, mould-ripened cheese by Breda Maher is unlike any other you have tasted. Made from raw or pasteurised milk and vegetarian rennet, the white cheese does have a creamy, buttery texture, but the flavour is much more robust. Many say it evokes the tangy flavours and aromas of fresh grass and mushrooms.
DunbarraOnce known as Dublin’s only cheese, the production of Dunbarra moved to Cooleeney in the late 1990s. Made from pasteurised milk and vegetarian rennet, the soft, creamy cheese has a firm, buttery texture and mild flavour. Mould-ripened, Dunbarra is easily distinguished by its edible white rind imprinted with a Celtic design.
DurrusFamous in the West Cork region, this farmhouse cheese was first made on the kitchen stovetop of Jeffa Gill in 1979. In recent years, the handmade cow’s milk cheese has won a number of awards for excellence, indicating its high quality and distinctive flavour. Semi-soft and covered with a smooth, natural brown washed rind, Durrus is mild, creamy and slightly acidic when young. With maturity, the flavours become deeper, fuller and fruitier. The cheese is wonderful all on its own, especially with fresh pears. But it can also be cubed and added to salads or melted for making raclette.
GubbeenThe name of this semi-soft vegetarian cow’s milk cheese is derived from the Gaelic “gobin.” Meaning “small mouthful,” it refers to the bay in West Cork where the Ferguson family farm has produced the cheese for five generations. A repeat winner at the British Cheese Awards, Gubbeen has a brine-washed rind of terracotta colour that’s dusted with white and blue moulds. Inside, the dense, full-bodied cheese is rich and savoury. Perfect as a table cheese, it’s also favoured with burnt onions and grilled cheese.
LavistownMade by Olivia Goodwillie according to an old recipe, Lavistown is a pasteurised cow’s milk cheese that’s semi-soft and low in fat. Similar to Cheddar, but less compact, the cheese is highlighted by a sharp acidity and leafy green taste. It is moist and soft when young (three weeks), and more crumbly and piquant with further maturity.
The vegetarian cheese is wonderful in baked dishes such as lasagna, but it’s also a nice addition to your cheese board, especially when paired with a sparkling white wine.