The Guide to the Irish Cheese Renaissance

Words: Caitriona Devery
Photography: George Voronov

Words: Caitriona Devery
Photography: George Voronov

Do you have a sweet tooth or a savoury one? Mine is very much on the savoury side. Cheese is my chocolate, the ultimate comfort food. Some people claim that the same addictive reward processes activated by chocolate are activated by cheese. Like how sugar releases a hit of dopamine, proteins in cheese (casomorphins) apparently have an opioid-like effect on our neural pathways. Can I use this an excuse for my excessive cheese consumption?

Ireland doesn’t have strong history of cheesemaking. Well, it did according to food historians until the seventeenth century when for various reasons the skill died out. It’s only in the last 30 years or so that we have embraced farmhouse and naturally made, hand-crafted cheeses. Many generations of Irish people grew up thinking there was only one type of cheese, and it was orange. But now we are mad for the stuff, and while we still cherish cheddar our cheese repertoire has expanded.

Good cheese is flavoursome, rich and satisfying in a way that few foods are. You can overdo it, true, but for me it’s is a kind of magical product. There’s an alchemy in the turning of dairy into cheese. Like honey, it manifests the characteristics of the landscape and environment around it, distilling its organic context into a flavour sensation. The scale of Irish food chains means there’s a very direct and visible path from land to sandwich.

While Irish fromage was once Calvita, Easi-Singles (I know a few of those) and generic Trump-coloured cheddar, what you might call the gateway drugs of the cheese world, we are now blessed with a bounteous assortment of cheeses, with a rake of great cheese-dealers, I mean -mongers, selling class A dairy.

Fallon and Byrne do great cheese. As do Morton’s in Ranelagh. Donnybrook Fair have lots of fancy options, but I can’t go in there because of my blood pressure and the price of everything. Loose Canon Cheese & Wine is the new kid in town having just opened on Drury Street It’s run by the Meet Me in the Morning peeps, so you can bet on an epic selection of (mostly) Irish produce and natural wines.

Corleggy Cheese are the go-to Temple Bar market cheesemongers these days, selling their raw cow and goats milk creations and a selection of others, but before Corleggy, Sheridan’s was the spot. Their regular stall at the market they helped set up was always a favourite feature. Born in Galway they’ve now grown to have shops around the country including their wondrous chilled cheese cave on South Anne Street.

I met with John Leverrier, manager at the Dublin 2 location. Sheridans’ shop is an Aladdin’s cave of blue cheese, goat’s cheese, washed rind, brie and hard and soft cheese of all varieties. They also sell a small selection of the ultimate cheese partner, wine, plus amazing Le Levain bread, cured meats and essential cheese paraphernalia such as crackers and chutney.

John says Irish cheese is more exciting than it was 30, even 20, years ago, although they sell cheese from all over Europe. The number of cheese producers in Ireland has risen from around 10 in the late 70s to over 60 now, with practically every county represented.

Cheddar features here, they have five carefully chosen flavours, but it’s certainly not the only show in town. John tells me that despite its apparent banality, cheddar is one of the most difficult cheeses to produce well. The most popular cheese in their shop is the nutty, toothsome Comté, a semi-hard, unpasteurised cow’s cheese from the Jura mountains in France.
Coolea is another hot tip from the Sheridan’s manager, a gouda style hard cheese made on the Cork/Kerry border. He also says Irish blue cheeses rank up there with the famous Frenchie ones. Another Cork treasure, the Gubeen farm cheeses from the Ferguson family, are of legendary status. Try the oak smoked version if you like a smokey, hard cheese.

Continental-wise, Sheridan’s do a Parmesan from Giorgio Cravero, a ‘cheese banker’, who sources consistently good parmesan from Emilia-Romagna. Parmesan is probably the most useful cheese to have in your fridge; it lasts a long time and can add a serious umami- bomb to pasta dishes. Try Cacio e Pepe, with spaghetti or ramen, David Chang style. If you love the springy stretchiness of melted mozzarella but find it a bit bland, he recommends Italian Asiago which has similar textural qualities but a bit more of a savoury bite.

I tasted a few cheeses which were new to me that day. One was Mimolette, a pretty, pumpkin-hued hard French cheese with a sweet and buttery flavour. Erik, a cheesemonger in the shop, gave me a sliver of his favourite; Pouligny-Saint-Pierre is a triangular-shaped, soft, rich and crumbly cheese with a wrinkly rind. It is yummy. They also do a seriously goaty, Gouda.
Most of these cheeses are reliant on variable factors like what their dairy herds can eat, the weather during production, the moisture content and temperature of the storage environment. Many things can affect how cheeses taste. John agrees that the shop must work closely with producers to manage the natural mutability of the products they sell.

I also learned that the cheese industry, despite being founded 8000 BCE, has not escaped automation. Swiss cheesemakers, never short of a bob or two, use robots to rotate their wheels of gruyere on the regular. You won’t find any cheese robots in West Cork just yet, but it’s surely coming down the line. Hello, Cheesoid!