It was back in the 1980s when the Irish farmhouse cheese industry came alive.
During that time, some of the big players of farmhouse cheese established their roots – Veronica Steele of Milleens Cheese Ltd as well as Jane and Louis Grubb of Cashel Blue.
Also among them was Eamonn Lonergan, a dairy farmer in the tiny townland of Ballyneety in the parish of Knockanore, Co Waterford.
“Ah I was always a bit innovative,” he laughs. “I remember watching a programme on TV one evening about the Steeles moving from Dublin to west Cork to farm and make cheese and I thought, ‘God that is fascinating,’ so I got onto UCC to do their course on cheesemaking. I actually attended one of the first cheesemakers meetings in Moorepark.”
It was 1987 when Eamonn and his wife Patricia made their move and since then, Knockanore Cheese has grown with the industry. “Back then we were milking about 60 cows. Now we milk 180 and our cheese is only made from milk from our farm when the cows are out on grass. Artisan producers – whether they are in cheese or baking or jam – so much of it is a labour a love, a genuine passion for your product and that is certainly the case with us.
“But I also looked to cheese as a viable lifeline for the farm, to develop a business for the next generation. The farm was handed to me and now our son Edward is coming into the business.”
The stand-out product
With 10 staff members and nine different cheeses in their product range, the business has grown substantially from Eamonn and Patricia’s initial idea. But it is the Knockanore Oakwood Smoked Cheddar that has found its home as part of the Simply Better family of Irish farmhouse cheeses in Dunnes Stores.
Eamonn explains: “Our cheddar is made with raw milk and we think that is so important. When it’s pasteurised, the taste profile can be diluted. That unique taste of our farm, the wonderful natural goodness of our cows grazing in the field, that really comes through in the flavour of the unpasteurised milk. It results in a beautiful rich and nutty flavour.
“Then it is smoked and what really adds to that distinctive flavour is the fact that we smoke our cheese with certified natural oakwood as opposed to a liquid wood.”
Knockanore Oakwood Smoked Cheddar is a beautiful and different addition to an Irish cheese board, especially for fans of smoked cheese but is always sumptuous when melted over a burger, imparting all its smoky notes onto the meat. It is also considered an essential ingredient in the Simply Better Quiche Lorraine from Zanna Cookhouse.
Eamonn views the decision to become part of the Simply Better range as an important business move.
“We have three elements to our business: the farm, the cheese and we also do contract cutting and packing of cheese. These are all commercial decisions to keep our business profitable and strong, to future proof it for the next generation.
“From day one, we saw our partnership with Simply Better as a great opportunity and it’s been a real success for us. It’s not just customers that go into a cheese shop that buy our cheese for a special occasion. Every week, people know the Simply Better branding on cheese means quality and we are part of that purchase.”
Less than a mile from the sea at Curranstown, Co Wicklow, the delicate salty air breezes gently through the grass of John Hempenstall’s farm where the family’s cows have grazed for over 50 years. However, 15 years ago, John was very sceptical about how long those cows would be there.
“We were focused on liquid milk,” John says, “but to be honest, I could only see things getting more and more difficult. Costs were increasing and yet I could only see my margins getting smaller.
“I wanted to future proof the business for my children and yet, I couldn’t see anything positive about the trends that were in front of me.”
Taking things into his own hands, John set about doing some research and could see real potential in cheese. However, even John himself couldn’t anticipate the success it would become. From milking 48 cows back in 2005, he now has 170 cows with 95% of the milk going into his range of Brie-and cheddar-style cheeses, with his signature Wicklow Bán cheese forming part of the Simply Better cheese range in Dunnes Stores.
And in terms of future proofing the business, the company now employs 10 people including his sons Liam and John, and his daughters Mary and Anna.
So much of the success comes down to the taste and quality. John says: “We didn’t know it at the time but our farm is ideally placed to make excellent soft cheese. Because we’re so close to the sea, we don’t experience frost like other areas and so the cows are out on grass for nearly 10 months of the year.”
Wicklow Bán is made by pitching the Brie out of cheese vats and a white mould is then applied before leaving it to mature for two weeks.
“Our maturing rooms are on the farm and they are specifically designed for Brie production. Because the maritime air is so pure, we find it a lot easier to grow a mould on the cheese, as it favours a saline atmosphere to grow,” John explains.
The result is the delicate Wicklow Bán Double Cream Brie, a rich artisan Brie, delectably smooth with a lingering richness.
Speaking about becoming part of the Simply Better cheese family John says: “It was a big decision, it was the first time that we co-branded but we knew that we were very aligned in our thinking.
“Simply Better is all about quality and so are we. We watched them grow their brand over five or six years and we knew it was a right fit. It was a marriage that suited both of us.”
In fact, their aligned thinking organically led to the launch of Simply Better’s newest cheese product, Wicklow Bán Baked Brie. “We were playing around with the idea for a while and last year, my daughter Anna did an Instagram post about some of the work we were doing on the baked Brie.
“We were delighted when Simply Better were looking to do a baked Brie that they chose our Wicklow Ban to add to the range. We’ve spent over a year working on it and we think we have it perfect for the Christmas season.
“It comes in a lovely ceramic dish, it’s warmed in the oven for a few minutes and when you dunk a piece of bread in, it just oozes creaminess and Christmas.”
Wicklow Bán Baked Brie will be available in Dunnes Stores from 8 December.