When Coolea Farmhouse Cheese founders Dick and Helene Willems accepted their ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award at the biennial Irish Cheese Awards, which took place on Wednesday, 24 April, Dick told attendees that in the beginning, Irish farmhouse cheese felt like a lonely place.

He described the first-ever Cáis (Association of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers) meeting taking place outdoors, with attendees sitting on bales of hay. A far cry from the cheese reception and lavish ambiance of the orangerie at Kilshane House, situated in Tipperary’s Golden Vale, where the 2024 awards were held.

Dick and Helene credited Teagasc, University College Cork, Bord Bia and their fellow cheesemakers in Cáis for creating the community and supports needed to develop a true industry.

“As one of the founding members, we’re hugely thankful for the opportunities that being a part of the association over the last 40 years has given us to work with, and for, so many fantastic farmhouse cheesemakers all over Ireland. Go raibh míle maith agat, Cáis.”

Dick and Helene started making their multi award-winning Co Cork cheese in 1979. Just a few years earlier, in 1974, the late Veronica Steele had re-established the long-defunct Irish farmhouse cheese tradition with her cheese, Milleens. These artisanal pioneers paved the way for so many more to come.

Celebrating Irish cheese

Today, Ireland boasts over 45 cheesemakers found throughout our 32 counties. During the awards ceremony, it was noted that the judges tasted over 170 cheeses.

Coolea wasn’t the only big winner – the ‘Supreme Champion 2024’ was awarded to Co Cork’s Hegarty’s Templegall Extra Mature cheese.

Named after the village of Whitechurch, where it is made (An Teampall Geal), Hegarty’s Templegall Extra Mature is a hard, alpine-style cheese which was developed by farmer Dan Hegarty with the assistance of French cheesemakers Jean-Baptiste Enjelvin and Quentin Duboz.

“A special mention should go to the 150 cows we have back home who are in for milking at the moment as without them none of this success would be possible,” Dan said, commenting on the win.

An additional 17 awards were given out on the day, with top prizes going to Hollywood Farmhouse Cheese (Co Wicklow), Velvet Cloud/Rockfield Dairy (Co Mayo) and Mike’s Fancy Cheese (Co Down), among many others.

Michael and Jenny Finegan of Boyne Valley Farmhouse Cheese took home both the gold and silver award in the ‘Hard Cheese Under Six Months’ category. Michael told Irish Country Living that they are delighted with their wins as the competition at the Irish Cheese Awards is notoriously difficult.

Norma and Tom Dinneen own and operate Bó Rua Farmhouse Cheese in East Cork.

“I was thinking if I got anything at all I’d be delighted, so to get a gold and a silver is just fantastic,” he said.

Cáis chair Tom Dinneen, who makes Bó Rua cheese with his wife, Norma, on their Co Cork dairy farm, said that while there are challenges in food production, they don’t regret diversifying their farm into cheesemaking.

“The longer we’re at it, the more people we get to know in the industry,” he said. “You get more confident. I think food is hard, but it’s very rewarding. There’s so much pride in what you do, and satisfaction in seeing your product being enjoyed. You focus on the positive things.”

Market research

The past few years have been difficult for the industry as many cheesemakers are also farmers. They have been hit with both environmental and financial roadblocks. However, as Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith of St Tola Farmhouse Cheese (Co Clare) said, cheesemakers by nature are “positive people”.

“The last few years have been challenging, but you can see there is so much enthusiasm among the cheesemakers here today,” she told Irish Country Living. Siobhán and her team won three awards at the 2024 celebrations.

Bord Bia’s Farmhouse Cheese specialists have been working on a new market report which they say will be launched in the coming weeks.

This market and consumer research will be welcome to Irish cheesemakers as it will give them insight into the future viability of their businesses.

“This is something we’ve campaigned on for a long time, because even though we’re small in number, we punch above our weight,” Siobhan said. “We’ve campaigned Bord Bia to use their resources to do research for us. It’s so valuable – especially for us cheesemakers – to see what the business is worth and where the potential is.”

Siobhán Ní Gháirbhith won three awards for her St Tola Farmhouse Cheese, which is made in Co Clare.

Boyne Valley Farmhouse Cheese’s Michael Finegan was delighted with his two awards. \ Philip Doyle

From left: cheesemakers Quentin Duboz and Jean-Baptiste Enjelvin with farmer Dan Hegarty, all of Hegarty’s Cheese in Whitechurch, Co Cork, who were crowned ‘Supreme Champion 2024’ \ Finbarr O’Rourke

Dick Willems and his wife Helene of Coolea Farmhouse Cheese in Co Cork – winners of the ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the 2024 Irish Cheese Awards.

Then and now: Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese

Teresa Roche owns and operates Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese. / David Ruffles

Teresa Roche makes Kylemore Farmhouse Cheese on her family farm in Co Galway and, if she wasn’t already busy enough, was recently appointed chair of the IFA Farm Family and Social Affairs committee. The last time Teresa featured in Irish Country Living (2020), she was just starting out.

She has had a successful few years by all accounts; incorporating agri-tourism (tours, farm walks and teas) and her delicious alpine-style summer milk cheese to her family’s existing enterprise. However, she says there were plenty of struggles along the way.

She now hopes to use her platform to help others – especially women on farms – who are starting out on similar journeys.

“I had given up a career,” she recalls, “and going from that to walking into something brand new – with no experience – there was a challenge there. You’re building something from scratch. I had transferrable skills [from my previous career in nursing], which were invaluable, but the biggest challenges were in obtaining financing, understanding how to run a business and accessing training and development.

“The challenges I faced were very much in relation to breaking the barriers as a woman in ag,” she continues. “Agri-tourism wasn’t a card many people were buying into at the time, but I could see a gap in the market. I saw examples abroad and knew it could be applied here.”

Teresa largely credits the support from her family; and mentorship from other cheesemakers – both in Ireland and in Switzerland, where she spent time learning the Alpine cheesemaking process – to her successes; saying cheesemaking communities in general are very supportive.

“Mentors are key to the productivity of your business, even just for communication purposes – you need a network of people to help you identify your strengths and weaknesses.”

New to the scene: Leitrim Hill Creamery

Gypsy Gifford (left) and Richelle South (right). \ Finbarr O’Rourke

There have been some excellent new entrants into the Irish farmhouse cheese industry in recent years. One of them is Leitrim Hill Creamery, which was awarded the top prize in the Fresh/Soft Cheese category at the Irish Cheese Awards – no mean feat after just two years in business.

Based on a small-holding just outside of Carrick-on-Shannon, Leitrim Hill Creamery is family-run by Lisa Gifford, her daughter, Gypsy and Gypsy’s wife, Richelle. Their story is as unique as their cheeses, as they moved to Leitrim from – literally – all over the world to settle in Ireland.

“Mom started it all because her grandmother was from Manorhamilton, but had moved to New York,” Gypsy explains. “So, Mom was born and raised in New York but always felt a special connection to Leitrim. She spent some time over here in her 20s [in the 1960s]. She left the States for good in 2013 and moved to Serbia with a friend for a couple of years. That’s where she first got some goats and started making cheese. Then, she moved to Ireland in 2016 – she had talked about moving our entire lives.”

Once settled, Lisa started setting up the farm with the aim to make goat’s cheese. At first, she made her cheese in the kitchen and shared it within the local community. Gypsy and Richelle (who is originally from California) were living and working in Singapore and at the end of 2020, they welcomed the birth of their daughter (now aged three). Soon after, they decided to join Lisa in Ireland.

“The following summer, we sent our cheese to the UK Artisan Cheese Awards and got a couple of gold medals,” Gypsy recalls. “We were really surprised – we thought maybe we should take the cheese to the next level.

“We had this old hayshed,” she continues. “We did a fit-out and now it’s a nice little micro-creamery, fully approved by the Department of Agriculture and the HSE. Our goats are a motley crue at the moment, but we are working towards having a significant number of old Irish goats in our herd. We would like to work more heritage breed animals into our cheeses.”

You can also visit Lisa, Gypsy and Richelle in their new space: The Hidden Corner Cheese Shop in Carrick-on-Shannon, where they are currently working on two new cheeses, but their main offerings are Sliabh an Iarainn (a soft, lactic cheese made from a mixture of cow and goat’s milk) and Cnoc Liatroma; made entirely of goat’s milk.

• irishcheese.ie

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