The grass is so green it looks as though someone painted it fresh that morning, the stream running through the field clear and teaming with wildlife, and only the distant sound of birdsong is around to keep one company.
It is the type of idyllic scene that tempts people from all over the world to endure airport security, the dragging of luggage and the annoyance of jet lag, to travel to County Cork in Ireland to sample a little of the quiet life on offer here.
Only for me, sitting beside the tinkling water on a soft blanket crushing the green grass, there’s the added attraction of a small selection of local cheeses to sample while sipping a glass of chilled wine – all thanks to a picnic provided by the Castlemartyr resort, which owns the lush grounds I’m lounging in.
Five star hotels do not have a monopoly on picturesque fields, take a 20 minute ride out of Cork city centre in any direction and you’ll find yourself staring out to fresh fields, usually with a hearty looking heard of cows wandering through it.
It’s the rain, often grumbled about by residents but essential to its agricultural sector, that nourishes the grass and hedgerows that feed the roaming cattle. The majority of dairy cows are born and raised outdoors, foraging for food and eating mainly a grass-based diet. It is only in winter, in the areas with more bog-like land, that the cows are indoors.
For generations Irish agriculture concentrated on producing milk, and using the excess for making butter. The skills of the Medieval monks that travelled from Ireland through Europe introducing cheesemaking techniques were lost in time, and it was not until the 1970s that a revival of artisan cheese started within the farming community. Names that are now familiar on the counters of delis across the world, Gubbeen, Milleens, and Durrus, were the pioneers of a modern award winning industry.
A Cow’s Quality Of Life
But it all starts with the cows. It’s their quality of life and diet that makes for quality of milk, according to Norman Steele, co-owner of Milleens Cheese, made from the milk of neighboring Friesian cows.
Steele and his wife Veronica run the business from their farm in Eyeries, located in the rugged Beara Peninsula in the west of County Cork. Not a Cork native, he was born and raised in England but studied at Dublin’s Trinity Collage, Steele is very passionate about the care dairy farmers give to their cattle.
“Here in Ireland the cows still roam freely, unlike many other places where the cow has only ever seen concrete the whole of its life,” declares Steele as he chats in the morning sunshine.
“Days like today, especially in spring, are magical. We are fortunate to have such wonderful dairy farmers, that love and care for their cows, and that comes through in the milk.”
Such is the devotion of dairy farmers to their cows, that Steele tells of one man who would feel the foreheads of his herd on a regular basis to check if they were well.
“This is why we want to make the best cheese we can, to make award-winning cheese because then the farmers know that all that attention has paid off, that they have helped to create this marvellous cheese.”
Milleens Cheese is indeed award winning, too many to mention, with its peachy washed rind, bathed in the spring water that flows through the surrounding land. The farm produces traditional rounds, as well as a doughnut-style cheese known as the O, and smaller discs.
Although the Steeles have produced the cheese since 1978, indeed they are cited as having started the resurgence of cheesemaking in Ireland, their son Quinlan and his wife Deirdre have taken over the day-to-day running of the business.
From the first discs sent to a local restaurant, to supplying the Dorchester Hotel, the Steele family has continually developed skills as farmhouse artisan cheesemakers.
I take possession of one of the smaller sized discs, called a ‘dote,’ which in some parts of Ireland is the name given to small gifts or to describe an adorable child. The rind is pale yellow, and as you slice into it a smooth, creamy paste is revealed, which has a little ‘bounce’ to its texture.
The flavor is delicate and subtle at first, but then deepens, with an aftertaste that is reminiscent of catching a mouthful of sea air. I imagine ruddy-cheeked families tucking into the cheese during a rest in their 10-mile hike; it is so perfectly evocative of fresh air and clean living.
This is the complete opposite of the gooey, semi-soft Ardrahan, made by the Burns family in Kanturk, Duhallow, which has to be the Casanova of the dairy world. It’s pungent, masculine flavor, and indulgent texture, is so seductive that I could elope with this cheese.
A Good Looking Rind
Even the rind is aesthetically exquisite, a blemish free, soft golden color as perfectly round as a pie. Although, anyone expecting to visit the Burns’ farm to find muscle-ripped men ladling the curd will be disappointed, that is until you meet the delightful Mary Burns, who runs the dairy with her son Gerald.
Burns, like Norman Steele, attributes the quality of her cheese to the happiness levels of the cows that potter about the fields surrounding the 150 year-old farmhouse. By eating grass not grain, and relaxing in a temperate climate, the cows produce milk rich in beta-carotene, which gives the cheese its golden hue.
Actually, relaxed should be the official description of County Cork, time certainly waits here for its population. Even in the city, where one assumes there will be a degree of hustle, it is more of a hum as its citizens stroll about their business.
In the English Market, so called as it was set up in 1788 by the ‘English’ Corporation that controlled the city until 1841, and styled on the covered markets from across the sea, shoppers banter with the traders as they patiently wait for their purchases to be wrapped.
Now, here’s where one has to raise the subject of the Cork accent. As the Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan observes, for such a small country there is a diverse range of accents, but the Cork one has its own unique lilt. Tiernan nails it when he describes it as sounding like “Two tinkers trying to speak French.”
It can at times sound impenetrable to those not familiar with it, and it is the result of Cork’s melting pot of invaders and settlers from the Danish to the French, to the Welsh. The people of Cork are aware of its ability to fox visitors, and are good humored enough not to mind when a tourist responds to a question or the passing on of information with a “What did you just say?”
And you certainly want to make sure you glean as much information as you can on local farmhouse cheese from the knowledgeable staff on the deli stalls operating in the market.
There is Lago with its pillar-box red frontage, and its trays of cheese displayed with the attractiveness of a posh patisserie. While the carnivore sounding On The Pigs Back prides itself on its selection of Irish, especially County Cork, cheese. Almost three quarters of the refrigerated cabinets are stocked with Irish cheese.
Surprisingly On the Pigs Back was established by a Frenchwoman, Isabel Sheridan, who started out ordering in the food she missed from her homeland before setting up the stall, and then falling in love with local cheeses.
Among the many rounds and blocks of Irish cheese it is worth seeking out the produce from the Gubbeen farm, in Schull, Cork. The name Gubbeen derives from the Gaelic term to mean “a small mouthful,” and was given to the farm due to its location in a small bay.
It has been in the ownership of the Ferguson family for five generations, and is now run by Tom Ferguson and his wife Giana alongside their son Fingal. As his father and grandfathers did before him, Tom leads his cows out to the sweet pastures on their doorstep every morning, watching over them as they meander to their grazing.
One has to be up very early to witness this procession, Tom in his waxed jacket, hands in pockets as he wanders with his beloved herd, but it is worth it to see how much effort goes into keeping the animals healthy and happy.
Like Opening A Present
In contrast to this traditional scene is the efficient, modern dairy where the milk is turned into a cheese that smells and tastes of the forest floor. Even before one gets to the cheese there is a feeling of excitement at the sight of its packaging. Wrapped in waxed paper, and sealed with an illustrated sticker, it is like opening a present.
Once unwrapped, one finds a tan washed rind with a scent of nuts, encouraged with a salt wash and the addition of white wine. Cutting into the hand-matured cheese is like slicing into butter, semi-soft with a creamy texture. The rind’s scent gives a clue to the flavor, slightly nutty with a hint of mushrooms that leaves a pleasing linger in the mouth.
One might have given the impression that County Cork specializes in semi and soft cheese, but that’s only because I’m saving one of the best to last. There is Cheddar made in the Coolea Mountains that melts upon the tongue in a thoroughly decadent way.
Coolea Cheddar came into the world following a decision by Helene and Dick Willems to start making cheese from milk produced on their small farm in the area. It is a Gouda style cheese with an orange wax rind. At a young stage the flavor is mild and buttery, with caramel notes, but as it matures it ripens to almost a toffee taste.
It is easy to see how such a delicious cheese is made given the outstanding beauty of the mountains, from which the waters run down to the streams that feed into the farm and lands upon which the cows graze.
The Ken Loach film The Wind That Shakes the Barley had scenes shot in the area, capturing the magnificent mountains that rise above the sea, although today there is competition for the view in the form of wind farms that mark the Cork and Kerry boarder.
Back in the city, wandering alongside the River Lee, which runs through Cork so that you are always obliged to cross a bridge at some point during your visit, the early evening sky is turning a teal blue.
It’s definitely still jacket weather, but the coolness of the air and the clear sky lends itself to eating al fresco, and in Cork there are plenty of places from which to watch city life casually passing by with a drink in one hand, and a cheese board in front of you. CC