Raw Milk Cheeses of Ireland: the flavor of tenacity

01 August 2023

Making raw milk cheese is not, strictly speaking, illegal in the Republic of Ireland. But nor is it easy, and only a brave few continue to fly the flag for traditional farmhouse dairy in the face of government pressure for pasteurization.

One of these stalwarts is Peter Thomas, a regular at Cheese since its second edition, one of the coordinators of the Irish Raw Milk Cheeses Presidium, and producer of the award-winning Bellingham Blue.

While historic references to dairy production are found in Irish texts date back over a thousand years, the modern story of Irish raw milk cheese begins as a reaction to the growing standardization and industrialization of the dairy sector from the 1960s onward. And though the creation of a Slow Food Presidium in 2005 went some way toward ensuring more stability for traditional, artisanal cheese, the difficulties for farmhouse producers continue to pose a threat to its future. We spoke to Peter Thomas about preserving the taste of the meadows in Ireland.

Childhood butter memories

“I wasn’t born to make cheese,” Peter tells us. “And I might never have started, if it hadn’t been for a series of coincidences. I was born in Glasgow, and spent my summers with family in Donegal when I was growing up. That’s where I had my first experiences of the dairy world, too, making butter with a hand churn with my grandmother. I became a printer by trader, and it was only when my brother-in-law, a farmer in County Louth with 200 cows, had an accident in the 1990s, that I began to get involved. We needed to do something with the milk. I thought back to those summers with my grandmother, and I thought I’d try and make butter with it.”

Peter Thomas. Photo: Dundalk Democrat

This dream was soon dispelled by the economic reality of the mighty Irish butter industry: despite Ireland having just over 1% of the European Union’s population, it produces more than 11% of its butter, being the third largest producer in the bloc after Germany and France. The economies of scale enjoyed by big business mean Irish butter is also relatively cheap, and anyone intending to make artisanal butter would soon be forced out by the prohibitively high prices they would incur, and pass on to customers. “It made no sense at all. As someone in the industry told me, ‘I can give you butter for cheaper than you can buy milk.’ So that was the end of that.”

Space for another blue

So then what happened? “I set about exploring other options, and I came to realize something that to me was quite strange. There was only producer in Ireland making blue cheese: Cashel. And they were pasteurizing their milk. I’ve always been a big fan of blue cheese, and I was sure there was room in the market for another. So I began to experiment with making my own with the milk from my brother-in-law’s cows. I read everything I could get my hands on, learning from other cheesemakers too. It was a long road of trial-and-error: it took me two-and-a-half years to really perfect the recipe for what would become Bellingham Blue. It went on sale for the first time in the year 2000.”

What’s made Bellingham Blue an award-winning cheese is undoubtedly its intense flavor and aroma, due to the use of raw milk from grass-fed cows. “I eventually switched from my brother-in-law’s herd to a neighboring herd which belonged to a cousin of mine. I mean neighbors in a very literal sense: there’s just one hedge separating the two herds. They move between different fresh fields of pasture every day in the summer, and we get them out there as early as we can in the season, as early in the morning as possible.”

“Their feed is supplemented in winter, of course. But that’s not a concern as far as the cheese is concerned, because we only make with the milk from spring to autumn. You have to give the animals a break. The cheese I’m bringing to Bra this year was made from May 5 to 10, 2022. I never normally release cheese unless it’s been aged for at least three months, more normally six months.”

Pressure to pasteurize

Over the time that Peter has been making cheese, there has been a growing and unrelenting pressure in the direction of pasteurization from the Irish government and the European Union. “The focus is very strictly on health and safety, because the risks associated with drinking raw milk or eating soft raw milk cheeses that have been aged for less than ten days have sadly tarnished the market for aged raw milk cheeses, which is safe. So the Ministry for Health really pushes farmers to go down that path, incentivizes it, and makes life bureaucratically complex for those few of us who continue to make cheese from raw milk.”

“Some of the producers who you might have found at the Irish Raw Milk Cheeses stand at Cheese in the past will not be there anymore, because they’ve switched to pasteurized in the meantime. There’s only 12 producers left doing raw milk in the whole of Ireland, as far as I know.”

Irish Raw Milk Cheeses at Cheese 2023

Come and meet raw milk cheesemakers from Ireland and taste their marvelous cheeses for yourself in Presidia Street from September 15-18. Cheese 2023 is free to attend and no booking is required!

Flying off the shelves in Bra

Speaking of Cheese, we ask Peter what the event means for him and for other Irish producers. “It’s an eye-opener, and a great motivation. I’ve been telling other Irish cheesemakers about just how special Cheese is for years, how quickly all the cheee sold out. Sometimes they didn’t believe me. I remember at Cheese in 2021, we were setting up the stand on the first day, the market hadn’t even opened. It was 8.15 in the morning.”

“A guy came over to us and asked if we were open, if he could get some cheese. ‘How much do you want?’ I asked him. And he replied to me: ‘I’ll take a whole wheel of blue, a whole wheel of brie, and whole wheel of goat’s cheese.’ Somebody else turned up a few minutes later and wanted another half a wheel. There was a woman cheesemaker with me, it was her first time at Cheese; she hadn’t believed all my stories about it. ‘Now I believe you,’ she said to me. And in fact all my cheese was gone by Saturday afternoon, with all the Bellingham Blue gone on the very first day.”

Bellingham Blue raw milk cheese. Photo: Bellingham Cheese

It’s safe to say that this year, too, the Irish Raw Milk Cheeses, so rare and so reflective of the rich green pastures of the Emerald Isle, are sure to be a firm fan favorite once again. Our advice, if you want to be sure to get your hands on some Irish cheese and taste it for yourself, is to get down to the stand on the first day!

by Jack Coulton, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

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