By J.S. MARCUS
In the burgeoning world of artisanal cheese, Ireland is a land of legend. Starting in the 1970s, a small group of self-taught cheesemakers, centered in the western reaches of County Cork, helped usher in a fine-food revolution by turning an eccentric hobby into an influential craft. By adapting Continental cheesemaking techniques to their remote maritime setting, they managed to transform obscure Celtic names—like Gubbeen, Durrus and Milleens—into internationally recognized gourmet brands.
Now Irish farmhouse cheeses have grown up, as a second generation of cheesemakers has reached adulthood and often diversified their businesses. Along the way, several of Ireland’s best cheesemakers have opened up their farms to visitors, making it possible to tour the country with nothing but fine cheese on your itinerary.
“Ireland would be one of the fun tours,” says Rob Kaufelt, the owner of Murray’s Cheese Shop, a prime New York cheesemonger, talking about options for cheese-loving travelers. The country is a great choice, he says, “because of the people,” and because of the uniqueness of the cheese itself. “Irish grass is noteworthy,” he says, and he wouldn’t “mistake Irish cheese for anything else.”
All of Ireland’s cheese-lined roads lead to County Cork, in the southwest of the country, but the place to start is in the heart of Dublin, at Sheridans Cheesemongers, the capital’s best-known cheese outlet. The small shop will surround you with the best of the season, from Kilree, a new washed-rind goat cheese, which won best-in-show at the 2011 British Cheese Awards, to classics like Gubbeen, the most approachable of Cork’s now classic washed-rind varieties.
For centuries, Irish milk was used for just about everything but fine cheese, and the shop’s co-owner Kevin Sheridan says that “a lack of tradition” helped to inspire the country’s recent wave of cheesemakers. “There were no constraints,” he says. “People imported ideas, but made them very much their own.”
Mr. Sheridan says that Ireland’s innovation in cheesemaking has also spread to the way people actually eat cheese here. No longer following the French model, which dictates that a cheese selection “is something to be enjoyed after dinner in a formal setting,” the Irish now feel free to experiment. “You’re watching a movie on a Saturday night,” he says, “and you grab a bit of Cashel Blue,” the rich, nearly rindless blue cheese from County Tipperary.
On Saturdays, Sheridans has a stand at the Temple Bar Food Market just off the Wellington Quay on the River Liffey, where you can also find a stand operated by Corleggy Cheeses, the County Cavan producer of raw-milk hard cheeses from cow, goat and sheep milk.
There is now a huge range of fine-food producers in Ireland, from innovative black-pudding makers to craft breweries. Mr. Sheridan says that the farmhouse cheesemakers cut a path for that wider movement. They “were absolutely in the avant-garde,” he says. “Cheesemakers led a revival in Irish food.” Across the Liffey from Temple Bar, at the six-year-old Winding Stair restaurant, Irish ingredients have pride of place on the menu, and a daily fixture is an Irish farmhouse-cheese plate.
If you want to put Irish farmhouse cheeses in the broadest foodie context, a great place to visit is Fallon & Byrne, a central Dublin gourmet grocery store and restaurant complex. Upon request, you can customize a cheese board in the downstairs wine bar, mixing and matching Irish and imported varieties.
Irish farmhouse cheeses “have great character,” says Rachel Firth, Fallon & Byrne’s cheese buyer, “because they’re made by characters.” She is especially fond of Milleens, the very first of the County Cork washed-rind cheeses, which has now been taken over by Quinlan Steele, the 32-year-old son of the founders. He has used scientific analysis to perfect his family’s four-decade-old cheese recipe. Milleens is “wonderful at the moment,” Ms. Firth says.
A journey southward to Cork will lead through the lush, green pastures of County Kilkenny, where Helen Finnegan, who makes Kilree, started Knockdrinna Farm House Cheese in 2004. Ms. Finnegan, 49, uses organic white wine as a wash, allowing natural yeasts to finish her cheeses. In 2009, she opened a shop next to the cheesemaking facilities, and this year, she began monthly on-site cheesemaking classes.
Before heading south to County Cork, take a scenic detour to western Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula, a dramatic extension of County Kerry, divided in two by the Slieve Mish mountains. In the seaside town of Dingle, stop at the Little Cheese Shop, started up in 2010 by the peninsula’s best-known artisanal cheesemaker, Maja Binder, a 40-year-old native of Germany’s Black Forest, who has won accolades for Dilluskus, a semihard cow’s milk cheese flavored with seaweed.
Ms. Binder, who lives on the other side of the mountain range from Dingle, welcomes visitors to her farm, which overlooks an unspoiled stretch of pastures and beaches. “I have had an amazing year,” reports Ms. Binder, who attributes the “extremely creamy” quality of her latest batches to a new local milk supplier.
Then head south to the rain-drenched coastal grandeur of West Cork, where modern Irish farmhouse cheese got its start decades ago. The washed-rind technique is associated with great French cheeses like Reblochon, Vacherin and Munster. Irish versions tend to be more buttery, say many aficionados, due to the richness of the milk.
West Cork has little of the lushness of eastern Ireland, says Jeffa Gill, one of the area’s cheesemaking pioneers, who is based on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula. Rather, she says, “it is rock and bog,” with “rougher grazing” that gives the milk its distinctive properties. This roughness also makes for some of Ireland’s most picturesque scenery.
Starting this year, Ms. Gill has increased activities for visitors. She has opened a showroom for cheese tastings, and organizes seasonal walks on the peninsula, led by her son-in-law, who is a geologist. Visitors are asked to visit by appointment only.
A neighboring West Cork peninsula is home to Gubbeen cheese, started by a onetime London curator, Georgiana Ferguson, who turned a longing for Ireland into a thriving premium food business. She first settled in the area in the 1970s, making cheese on her kitchen stove for her family—”in the ham pot on the Aga,” as she puts it. Ms. Ferguson, 63, loves the washed-rind technique. “As soon as you wash cheese,” she says, “you create this slithery, slimy, smelly, delicious, wonderful funky rind.”
Fingal, the Fergusons’ 35-year-old son, has expanded the brand to include a charcuterie line. Ireland’s economic crisis has led many consumers to rediscover homegrown products, and like others in the Irish cheese world, Ms. Ferguson reports a general upturn in business. “The Irish are buying Irish,” she says.
The Fergusons don’t welcome drop-ins, but you can sample the best of their products at local farmers’ markets in the nearby towns of Bantry, Skibbereen and Schull.
Visitors are always welcome at Milleens, on the Beara Peninsula, down the coast from Ms. Gill’s farm. Here, Veronica Steele, a Dublin native, and her English-born husband, Norman, began experimenting with farmhouse-style cheese in the mid-1970s, later inspiring both Ms. Gill and Ms. Ferguson.
“We welcome people who have a passion,” says their son Quinlan Steele, who took over in 2002. “If people have a genuine passion, I can talk to them all day.”