SLOWFOOD 12 – The Irish Cheese Wars

21 Sep 2005

’Cheese 2005’ has only just come to an end but life at Slow Food continues. Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 12. It’s about … cheese.

From ancient times Ireland had been a great cheese and dairy country but with the destruction wrought by the invasions of the Danes, the Normans and then the English, agricultural life and practices were disrupted and lost. Even up to the Great Famine of the 1840s, significant quantities of cheese were being produced and exported. After the Famine the native cheeses disappeared to be replaced by English Cheddar.

From the late 1950s to the 1970s the food production had become concentrated in large agribusiness cheese and meat processing factories. By the early 1980s there were several soft and semi-soft cheeses, plus Cheddars, Goudas, blues, Gruyères and some goats’ cheese, all made with raw milk. Soon these new farmhouse cheeses were being sold in the best shops in Dublin, Cork and London. During the 1980s and 1990s, one by one, Ireland’s fine raw milk cheesemakers were forced to pasteurize their milk or be put out of business by the threat of detention orders removing large amounts of their cheese from the market, often for absurd reasons.

A Slow Food Presidium of Irish Raw Cow Milk Cheese was created to promote and protect this specialized and endangered industry. The first raw milk cheese battle was won, after a series of six cases that lasted from 2002 to 2004.

Several factors contributed to the early success of the farmhouse cheese industry. The first factor was the passion of this original band of cheesemakers, well educated and well able to market their cheeses. Through sheer hard work farmhouse cheese became a mainstream item in just a decade. The original group of farmhouse cheesemakers all used raw milk.
By 1990 several of these cheeses had become household names and were widely available in Ireland and the U.K. The second factor is the Irish milk. Because of the high mineral content of the soil and the mild maritime climate Ireland is an ideal country for milk production. And this is one of the few countries in western Europe where dairy cows can graze outside for most of the year.

Sadly, the attitude of officials in the Department of Agriculture did not evolve to keep pace with the growth of the farmhouse cheese industry.
Sean Ferry and I started making cheese in 1988 near Schull, West Cork, after returning from a training programme in summer on the High Alp above Giswil in Central Switzerland, arranged by our first teacher, Josef Dubach, of the Swiss Centre for Appropriate Technology. Before that we’d made cheese in Donegal on a small farm for several years. With the knowledge and sense of values we’d obtained, we felt ready to start making our two new cheeses, Gabriel and Desmond. Within a few years they became popular with chefs and food writers.

During the 1990s, Sean and I watched as other cheesemakers were forced into pasteurization. We agreed not to succumb to pressure from the Department of Agriculture even though we had been privately advised by our local inspector that there was a covert policy to end raw milk cheesemaking in Ireland. Sean and I knew that if Gabriel and Desmond were made from pasteurized milk the flavor would suffer. We determined that we couldn’t compete with big creamery cheeses and imports, if our cheeses lost their flavor, their integrity. In the meantime we kept up our ultra high standards for raw milk: eg, milk from cows which we’d tested individually and visually examined before the cheesemaking season starts in June. We tested the milk each day from each farmer as well as employing independent labs to test our cheeses. Only fresh morning milk was allowed into our cheese vat.

Because of the legal battles to keep our cheeses in the marketplace our small company is hanging by a thread. Despite the fact that we have overturned five Detention Orders of the Department of Agriculture and one Prohibition Order from the Food Safety Authority.

Since the Cheese Wars began for us in 2002 our normal source of short-term credit has dried up. The Credit Union doesn’t make loans and banks are standing back, if it is not a sure thing. No one thought that West Cork Natural Cheese could beat the Department of Agriculture or the Food Safety Authority.

In one sense, it has been a great privilege to defend the interest of raw milk cheesemakers and artisan food producers in general against a retrograde bureaucracy and outdated policies. Dialogue, mutual respect and arbitration are words that keep repeating themselves in my mind. By promoting and maintaining only corporate food production in Ireland, the state has been missing the point and revealing their bias. We hope the new Slow Food Presidium of Irish Raw Cow Milk Cheese will help to change the attitude of decision-makers in Dublin.

No other cheesemaker has ever appealed against the detention orders of the Department of Agriculture and the FSAI (Food Safety Authority of Ireland), so we can’t know what might have happened, if someone had appealed ten or twenty years ago. Perhaps more raw milk cheeses still being made?
The Judges we’ve stood before have all been persons of depth, integrity and independent thinking. Our legal team led by Helen Hoare and her brother Maurice Collins flourished in a climate provided by these able men. Each time we went into court Helen would advise us in good lawyerly fashion “Now I think we’ll probably lose, but we’ll do our best.” Each time we won.
The side of this struggle that is more difficult to bear is that West Cork Natural Cheese is being ground down. Our production for the last two years has been just a couple of tons to keep our hat in the ring and continue to defy the Department of Agriculture. Sean and I want to get our company back on the track and make lots of Gabriel and Desmond.

Bill Hogan is an artisan cheesemaker

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