Irish cheesemakers are a funny, gnarled breed of fighters. Those who’ve made West Cork their home have chosen an area of undeniable beauty; rolling green hills that tumble into a lapping, tender sea. The rough-cut landscape of westernmost West Cork carves peninsulas that stretch out of Ireland like fingers, and these cheesemakers live on the green and rocky tassels of what is already the fringe, making cheeses that taste incontestably of the sea. They have banded together to fight any adversity that dares head their way: funky bacteria, unreasonable laws, ignorant auditors. Over the thirty years of their struggle, they have become some of the most well-informed, highly organized, voluble, eloquent and compelling of the cheesemakers in the British Isles.
Because West Cork is wet, most of them make washed-rind cheeses. Washed-rinds are generally recognizable as pinky-brown, sticky, squidgy, stinky wheels covered more in moist bacteria than dry, powdery mold (like a Camembert or Brie might), although if it’s been a while since its last washing, the cheese might feel dry to the touch and look brown, like an Appenzeller or Comte (both of which are technically washed-rind cheeses that just don’t get washed very often—towards the end of their maturation they are dry-salted instead, so the outside gets crusty and hard). The bacteria known as B. linens (the name we’ve given to the sticky pink stuff) thrives in humid environments and by the sea, which explains the prevalence—and excellence—of the many West Cork washed-rinds. Indeed, Veronica Steele of Milleens, one of the first cheesemakers in this area of then-undiscovered terroir, tried at first to make a hard, cheddar-style cheese, but as it kept being colonized by B. linens, she eventually gave in to the stuff and ever since has been proud to make some of the loveliest, pinkest, stinkiest literalizations of West Cork’s terrain and sea air.
Although the West Cork washed-rinds have much in common, each has its own personality—much like their makers (I met Veronica Steele—now in her sixties, mind you—long past midnight on the dancefloor of a dark Italian nightclub, where she was getting jiggy with her long white hair and sunglasses like an elegant Stevie Wonder). At Neal’s Yard the West Cork washed-rinds are generally displayed together on the slate, so that mongers and customers can taste them all together and decide which one tastes best on any given day; first place is always a jostle. They all melt beautifully as well, making them terrific cheeses for cooking.
Frank and Gudrun Shinnick make St. Gall and St. Brigid on the outskirts of a small town called Fermoy, near the soaring arc of a new Irish ‘superhighway.’ The St. Gall, similar to Appenzeller cheese, is named after the Irish monk who Christianized Switzerland (it’s where my dad is from, and his dad spent a lifetime making Appenzeller cheese).
Debate rages over whether St. Gall brought washed-rind alpine-style methods to Switzerland, or took them back with him to Ireland. The Shinnicks’ Irish version of Appenzell tastes meatier and gamier than the fruity Swiss cheese, with the wheels we tasted at the Shinnicks’ redolent of tasty cooked liver—the most outstanding St. Gall I’d had, perhaps ever. The Swiss wouldn’t stand for it, but it was just right for West Cork. Frank Shinnick seems a bit Swiss himself—while Gudrun is outright German—but peppers his speech with a little too much “feckin’” to confuse anyone about his origins.
St. Brigid, another Shinnick creation, is a cheese I loved when I first started at Neal’s Yard, but we stopped carrying it shortly after and I hadn’t seen it since. Too bad—it’s the perfect breakfast cheese, plain, placid and unadorned. Vickie and I fantasized about what would happen if Frank made Schinken, or simple cured ham (not as salty or dry as prosciutto), out of his pigs, and served it up with St. Brigid for breakfast. The thought kept us salivating all the way west.
Maja Binder is a German hippie lady who makes Kilcummin on a self-contained farm in Castlegregory. She was so out of our way that despite having put a whole day apart to find her, we never actually made it. Part of the blame should be placed on a tea break we took near Ballylickey Bay, when Vickie half-fell into a hidden stream and the kettle took ages to boil on our ghetto little camping stove. But Maja Binder’s worth a mention anyway, if only to recount the anecdote wherein a Christmas temp took her cheese to the sink and washed it with bleach one day at closing time, mistaking it for a wooden board. To put it politely, Kilcummin redefines ‘rustic.’
Jeffa Gill is the busy lady who makes Durrus, one of the only still-unpasteurized Irish washed-rinds, on the absolutely stunning Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Getting to her requires a great deal of bumping cautiously along tiny little roads expecting death or disaster at any minute, but her cheese tastes so much better on-site than it does anywhere else that the trip is totally worth it. Jeffa had been working in Dublin as a fashion designer when she decided in 1979 to give it up, move to the country, and make cheese. (In fact, quite a few Irish cheesemakers can tell that story. West Cork is peppered with aged hippies who settled the land in the sixties and seventies—writers, photographers, farmers, philosophers, potters, poets, cheesemakers. Today, they seem surprised to suddenly find themselves hip!) Although she began with six cows, a kitchen table, and a recipe for Tomme de Savoie, the cheese was good and the operation grew. On our visit the grounds were covered in concrete dust from the new dairy under construction. If Durrus retailers can only figure out how to keep the cheese tasting as good as it does at home in Coomkeen, she’ll soon need to build another extension!
Tom and Giana Ferguson are two of the most laid-back and bighearted people, Vickie and I decided, we’d ever met. Within minutes of our arrival, we’d already agreed to stay the night, and farted it away sipping lovely French red wine and talking about everything under the moon and sun. By the end we’d both drunkenly sworn to ourselves and each other that we’d move to Ireland. Even looking back at the discussion sober, chances are good it might actually happen.
Hoo boy, Bill Hogan. We don’t sell much of his cheeses Desmond and Gabriel at the dairy, probably because it takes a team of mongers to cut even a tiny piece, but this guy had intrigued me for ages. I’d heard legends about his days working for Martin Luther King; his post-King-assassination escape to Costa Rican revolutions; his apprenticeship in Switzerland to alpine cheese-makers; his time in London hanging out with the likes of John Minihan and Samuel Beckett; and his devotion to his West Cork cheese, made only four months of the year with summer’s milk. Meeting Hogan, the man who has taken on the Irish government in six cheese-related cases and actually, inconceivably won, did not disappoint. That he got Vickie and I sloshed on his “Hungarian plonk” (read: very good white wine) and cooked us Gabriel-filled crepes only added to the highly spirited evening. I don’t quite remember Vickie’s exact words when we left, but they ran along the lines of “What a crazy fucker. I think I love him.”
While a good proportion of West Cork cheesemakers may classify as aging hippies, what they’re doing is anything but archaic or dippy. Their hard work has blazed a path for the next generation: mine. That we even have the prerogative to sell nice food at farmer’s markets or specialty shops rests entirely on the fact that they’ve been out there making it—for the past few decades. Happily, we met loads of people in Cork that weren’t aging hippies: instead they were young ones, cut from the same mold. Sometimes literally.
There’s Jeffa Gill’s daughter, who works for Ireland’s counterpart to Neal’s Yard Dairy, the cheese shop known as Sheridan’s (Vickie and I visited their Dublin shop and were taken aback by the professionalism of the staff and good looks of the cheese.) Tom and Giana Ferguson’s kid Fingal makes charcuterie out of their whey-fed pigs, and their daughter Clovisse sells the herbs and vegetables that she grows on the farmer’s market. Even at Ballymaloe the younger generation of Allens have taken up the cross: Rachel and Isaac write cookbooks and produce a popular TV cooking show; Lydia and Rupert grow organic veg and set up farmer’s markets; and on and on.
In Ireland, in England, and in America, there are ever-increasing scads of articulate, dynamic, well-informed young people putting their energies towards learning about, making and distributing good food. I could say it’s about fucking time, but that would grossly overlook the long, hard work the ‘parents’ have been doing. “We spent so much of our time and focus fighting,” said Giana Ferguson. “The government, the auditors, the press, the supermarkets. It wore us down. Every ‘no’ wore us down. But you guys don’t listen to the word ‘no.’ It’s a whole new attitude and way of behaving, and it’ll build on what we built. I’m looking forward to it.”
I am, too.