Cheese has a long tradition in Ireland, with cheesemaking on the island documented back to the 8th century. Tanag and Grus, pressed skimmed-milk cheeses, the fresh cheese Faiscre Grotha and acid-curdled Tath are just a few examples of the extraordinary diversity of traditional Irish cheeses. Yet since the 1960s, this variety of flavors has been gradually supplanted by standardized industrial production.
The Irish Raw Milk Cheese Presidium was founded in 2005 to protect artisanal production, and involves a dozen producers around the country. “The Presidium is highly influential on Irish cheese production,” says one of the Presidium cheesemakers, Peter Thomas. “lt offers a platform for these local, unique, good cheeses, supporting producers in all their efforts. Unlike others in Ireland, the raw milk cheeses give the cheesemaker a chance to go back to basics, be more hands-on and preserve traditional methods, all while not requiring the expensive cheesemaking technology of some cheeses.”
Irish raw-milk cheeses are the silent witnesses to incredible stories, like that of Jeffa Gill, who makes Durrus, a semi-soft washed-rind cheese from Cork. Jeffa was one of the first figures to lead the revolution that shook Ireland’s cheesemaking world from the 1970s on. Jeffa has not moved far from the kitchen where she started making Durrus in 1979: Now she works in a small adjacent building, converted into a workshop. Durrus is one of the most highly esteemed artisanal Irish cheeses, offering complex and fruity flavors and reaching its peak after five to eight weeks of aging.
“Since the implementation of the Presidium back in 2005, raw milk cheese production has increased by more than 50%, and has even influenced established cheesemakers to try their hand at raw milk cheese production,” said Peter. “The support given to the cheesemakers has highlighted the work and pride that goes into these local raw milk cheeses. It has allowed us to organically build a strong collection of raw milk cheese producers and to promote our hard work, through means of education.” According to Peter, education and awareness raising for producers and consumers are key to guaranteeing a future for raw-milk cheeses in Ireland.
In October, Peter will be in Turin for the Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre 2012 with his Bellingham Blue, along with other Presidium producers and their cheeses. “The Salone del Gusto and Terra Madre will be a chance to meet other producers working in the same spirit,” said Peter. “We can’t wait to present the rich diversity of Irish raw-milk cheeses to the visitors.”
Slow Food Ireland has been supporting a campaign for raw milk. While the sale of cheese is allowed, unpasteurized milk is at risk. The government has long threatened to ban its distribution, though it still hasn’t made a final decision.
Peter remembers going around to nearby farms during the holidays when he was a child and “borrowing” freshly milked milk. “People should have a choice. Once the procedures are put in place to ensure safety, there is no reason to ban the sale, I was brought up on raw milk and it never harmed me”.”