Goat farmer Elizabeth Bradley is a cheese-maker in Ballybrommel in the flatlands below Mount Leinster in east Carlow, south-east of Dublin. A few kilometers away in Shillelagh under the gaze of the mountains in west Wicklow dairy farmer Tom Burgess uses a portion of his summer milk to make cheese.
They make two of the most aromatic cheeses in Europe, one with goat’s milk, one with cow’s milk. In industry parlance they are artisanal, making hardly enough to mark the shadow of an impression in the billions of exports in dairy products. That is because they sell to local markets. That is one of their problems!
They have other problems, that have nothing to do with making and selling cheese. These problems are shared by most cheese makers across Europe, especially artisanal producers who are not concerned with packaging and supermarkets, with dairies, commerce and exports, and with the glossy promotional images of farmers and cheese that have nothing to do with reality. People who like to be small and be very good at what they do.
Cheese-making in Ireland was an ancient activity. It was part of the fabric of society. Michael Ó Sé, writing about old cheeses (and other milk products) in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society in 1948 referred to the traditional coagulants used in cheese-making. Binit (calves rennet) and binit uain (lambs rennet) were used as animal rennets, and mothan (bog violet) as a vegetable rennet. Sadly this tradition died with many of the old ways and for several hundred years Irish cheese-making was just another myth.
By referring to the old methods, using the same raw materials, farmers returned to cheese-making in the 1900s and within two generations Irish cheeses were back on the shelves. Bord Bia, in their promotions for farmhouse cheese-making, noted the fact. “The cheese-makers developed their craft, and enthusiastic friends, enlightened local chefs and shopkeepers put in orders for cheeses and the amateurs slowly evolved into professionals. Experience and knowledge passed to other interested farms and slowly a new food culture began to emerge.”
In Ireland, say Bord Bia (the governmental food department), our farmhouse cheeses are unique to each producer, expressing terroir in the true sense of the word. “This has the advantage of allowing for innovation and creativity, while still respecting the values of traditional cheese-making. Our European neighbours find it hard to believe that each cheese is only produced on one farm and is the result of the passion and dedication of one family.”
“The personality of the cheese-maker is often reflected in aspects of their cheese; from the wild and unpredictable to the precise and consistent. The large range of Irish farmhouse cheeses now available is exceptional considering the youth of the industry and the small size of our island.”
Elizabeth Bradley has just collected 500 litres of raw cow’s milk from a dairy farmer in Bagnelstown. She will pay the fixed market rate of 39 cents a litre. “Most dairy farmers will not sell their milk to small cheese-makers, because they are afraid of any consequences,” she says, driving back to her small farm with the milk in tow. She pumps the milk into her 500 litre vat, adds the starter culture and gradually brings the milk up to 32ºC. Several hours later the curds of cheese rest in containers under a press.
Over in Shillelagh Tom Burgess explains why the grass is the hero of his Irish cheddar. “It is made from grass-fed milk, other cheddars are not made from grass milk. So my cheddar is a yellow colour. English cheddars are white. It is still-growing grass, living, a natural environment.”
His 150 cows graze 200 acres. They calve in February and March, and milk through the summer when the grass is growing. Milking is stopped in November and December. For that reason he realised he needed a product with a long shelf life and decided on cheddar.
“There was already a demand for cheddar, and I felt the customer would move onto a stronger cheddar and pay more for a better sample. It melts well, cooks well, people know cheddar. It fitted my production profile, which was seasonal production.”
“It is a mature cheddar so I make the whole year’s production and then I store it. We make about 200-250 kilos a day over 80 days, that’s 16 tonnes. And we are still increasing. We are selling it but we would like to put it in the supermarkets where it will sell in volume.”
He employs two people to make the cheese. “I am able to pay them, instead of working on my own, the milk lorry arriving in the middle of the night, and still make a sustainable living out of my cattle.”
The Moo Man film makers Andy Heathcote and Heike Bachelier might come to Ireland to feature the work of raw milk cheese-makers. After the success of their film about Sussex dairy farmer Steve Hook and his small organic raw milk business, it is no surprise to hear that the next stage of the process – cheese-making – is on their agenda.
Heathcote was drawn to the story of Errington Cheese who were forced to close their business after the authorities in Scotland implicated them in an outbreak of ecoli and has decided that the wider issue of bacteria in raw milk cheese should be investigated. His initial investigations tell him that there are numerous agendas, and for those reasons there are genuine fears for raw milk cheese-makers like Bradley and Burgess.
Rules that do not apply to raw milk cheese makers in France, Italy or Switzerland, where raw milk cheeses are celebrated as part of a regional food culture that attracts tourists and customers, are being applied to Irish and Scottish cheese-makers.
Dubliner Ben Sherwood has just finished his thesis on the future of raw milk cheese in Ireland. He is optimistic about Irish cheese but not sure about the future. “We could end up losing all our raw milk cheese-makers unless we do something,” he says. “There do not seem to be many new cheese-makers. Between 1995 and 2015 we lost about two-thirds of our raw milk cheeses.”
Elizabeth Bradley has another theory. “Part of it is the fact that there are very few people depending solely on raw milk cheeses for a livelihood so are therefore not going to take the risk.”
Ben Sherwood wonders whether the Food Safety Authority of Ireland are taking a lead from the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, where soft raw milk cheeses are not allowed. “You cannot sell or import two-month old raw milk cheese.”
This policy is part of the precautionary principle and the FSAI believe they serve the public by being cautious. Earlier this year supermarkets removed a pasteurised cow’s milk brie from their shelves. “As a precautionary measure, SuperValu is recalling batches of Wicklow Blue, due to the possible presence of Listeria monocytogenes,” the FSAI stated in a public announcement.
In 2005 University College Cork food sciences professor Alan Kelly surveyed food scientists on the public understanding of food risk issues and messages, and found that these experts had “little confidence” in the public’s understanding of food risk issues. “The public under-assesses the risk associated with some microbiological hazards and over-assesses the risk associated with other hazards such as genetically modified organisms and bovine spongiform encephalopathy.” They also said that the “media tend to communicate information that is misleading”.
Another reason for FSAI’s concern.
During his student years Ben Sherwood worked part-time in a shop with a specialist cheese counter. It gave him a window into the world of cheese consumers. “Only a small minority who come into the shop come up to the cheese counter,” he says. “People who know their cheeses know what they want, they have their favourites, the ones they are familiar with. Then there are people who haven’t a clue, but want to learn. Those are the best moments, that small interaction and the change in peoples outlook that one piece of cheese can make. They are the key to improving our culture.”
At the street markets across the country it is the same. Some people buy the cheeses they know, while other people want to know more about cheese. If the seller is also the cheese-maker they are in luck. “I think people do care,” says Elizabeth Bradley, “but are bombarded with information, have very busy lives, huge demands from the complex system around them.”
There is, according to Ben, a blissful ignorance about cheese. Despite attempts by the state, through Bord Bia, and others, like Sheridans cheesemongers, to promote Irish cheese, the medium does not convey the message.
Something is wrong.
Who is killing the cheese-makers? We all are, if you believe those who care about cheese, raw milk cheese in particular. From those in authority who display a “terrible arrogance” to those in the artisanal food sector who appear to be ruled by “arrogance and fear” to the consumer who has a “blissful ignorance” and sees food as an entertainment rather than a culture, to a media that has no excellence in food writing.
… continued in part two.