Somebody (my mom) asked me last week if I was going to write any posts about Irish cheeses leading up to St. Patrick’s Day (I was planning to). Since we don’t carry many varieties of Irish cheese in my shop, I was concerned that I wouldn’t have much to write.
In truth, the only cheeses from English-speaking Europe that I know much about are cheddars (go figure); I think the same goes for most people. So I set about doing some research, and short of traveling to Ireland for field work, I was able to learn a lot more about Irish cheeses than I had initially imagined I would.
If you asked most regular Americans to list off the Irish cheeses they knew, first on the list would likely be Kerrygold. After that, probably Irish Cheddar.
While Kerrygold is the biggest name in the Irish cheese export biz, cheddar isn’t really a big thing in Ireland like it is in southwestern England.
Allow me to explain.
When you search for “Irish cheese” online, you get a lot of generic “Irish Cheddar” options that come up, a few Irish cheddar-style cheeses, and not much in the way of substance. Even a sweep of Murray’s pulls up only two options: a generic “Irish Cheddar” and Cashel Blue. Very few big names come up relating to Irish Cheddar–farmstead, industrial, or otherwise.
On top of this, I think a lot of people assume that Kerrygold’s cheeses are cheddars; I know I’ve made that mistake in the past.
Kerrygold’s flagship cheese in the US, Dubliner, is not a cheddar. On the company’s own website, they refer to it as “similar to a cheddar;” according to the Oxford Companion to Cheese, it is in fact a Swiss-style cheese (Oxford Companion to Cheese, 691).
So we can all stop assuming that Dubliner is an Irish cheddar and quash all of our assumptions about the greatness of Irish cheddars in one fell swoop. Certainly, there are Irish cheddars, some of them produced for export.
But there’s a world of Irish cheese out there that isn’t inspired by the English giant.
That world is actually quite fascinating.
Gaelic Ireland, which existed up until around 1169, is a much-fantasized time in Irish (and British) history. It was also a time of great milk production and cheesemaking. The early Irish apparently loved to drink sour milk and eat yogurt and cheese.
The lush grasslands and moderate climate of Ireland allowed for lots of good milk, which led to lots of delicious cheese. Some legends even claim that monks leaving Ireland later on took Irish cheesemaking knowledge with them and actually inspired continental Europeans to begin making their first cheeses. (This is the opposite of the common belief that the monks who came to Christianize the Irish brought continental abbey-style cheeses with them.)
It seems that dairy production was snuffed out in the late 1600s, and all of the old cheesemaking lore was pretty much lost.
And then, in the 1970s, there came a Renaissance. A revival. Whatever you want to call it; cheese made a comeback.
Specifically, a revival of farmstead cheese, that is—thanks to the small-scale experimentation of a group of farm women mostly living in County Cork in southeastern Ireland.
The most famous of these women is Veronica Steele, whose washed-rind cheese, Milleens, was among the first new-Irish artisanal cheeses to be exported to Europe. Steele taught classes to local farmers and received government grants to improve and share her cheesemaking knowledge; without her dedication, Irish farmstead cheeses may not have had the same chance to flourish.
In a country of about 4.7 million people—just larger than the population of the Seattle Metropolitan area and about half the size of the San Francisco Metropolitan area, for some perspective—the Irish Farmhouse Cheese Association, Cáis, lists 32 farmhouse cheesemakers. That doesn’t include larger, industrial cheesemakers or smaller creameries that operate outside of the farmstead.
Among the cheeses that the farmstead producers make, there are a few cheddars. There are Alpines and Goudas; there are soft-ripened cheeses similar to Camembert; there are blues; there are tommes; there are cheeses made from cow’s, sheep’s, and goat’s milk; and there are washed-rind cheeses.
Steele’s Milleens, and the cheeses made by the women she inspired, are all washed-rind cheeses. Believe it or not, washed-rind cheeses are actually the most famous and beloved of the new Irish cheeses.
To name a few farmhouse examples, I cite Ardrahan, Durrus, Gubbeen, Knockdrinna Gold, and Lavistown.
I’ve never tried any of those cheeses, but I know I can get Gubbeen—so you can be sure I’ll be ordering it next chance I get.
What I do have in my shop, alongside the Kerrygold line of Dubliner, Vintage Dubliner, Skellig, Dubliner with Stout and Dubliner with Whiskey, are the Cahill Porter and Whiskey cheddars, and Cashel.
Cashel Blue, alongside Crozier Blue, is Ireland’s most famous blue cheese. Kerrygold imports the cheese, so it also bears the company’s logo in the US, but Cashel is still a farmstead cheese made in Tipperary by the Grubb family, not too far from an old castle also bearing the name Cashel.
The cheese is a fairly young, soft blue that comes in a petite wheel. It starts out relatively mild and creamy, and a little bit sweet, and becomes spicy and punchy as it ages.
When people do come in looking for Irish cheeses (usually during the week and days leading up to St. Patty’s), they are generally surprised when I point them to the blue cheese section. I suppose in the future, they would be even more surprised to land in the washed-rind section of the case.
Not all cheese that ages is cheddar, at least not in Ireland. Now we know.