HOW IRELAND BUILT A CHEESE MOVEMENT
When Irish farmer Eugene Burns started making a posh French-style, smelly cheese in 1983, he decided to do something either very brave or very foolhardy.
So convinced was he of the quality of his cheese that he made the decision to try to sell it in Paris.
Mr Burns wanted to go straight into the lion’s den of the cheese world.
And instead of putting a few rounds in the post, he vowed to drive to the French capital.
Despite having never left Ireland before, the County Cork farmer filled his van with cheeses, and drove to Paris’ Rungis food market via the UK and two ferries.
“I don’t think he had a word of French even,” says Irish food writer and TV personality Darina Allen. “How he got there is hard to say.”
But Mr Burns did manage to find the Rungis market, and the cheese of the determined Irishman was a hit with French wholesalers.
“He absolutely knocked it out,” says Ms Allen.
So much so that Mr Burns returned to the Republic of Ireland with an order for a tonne a week.
That didn’t initially go down well with his wife, as his daughter Liz Burns, 42, explains: “My mother said, ‘A tonne, are you mad?'”
However, they were able to fulfil the orders, and the cheese, called Ardrahan, has never looked back. Still available in France, it is today also sold across Ireland, in the UK, and even in the US.
Like many Irish diary farmers, Mr Burns decided to start making cheese almost out of necessity, due to the introduction of European Union milk quotas in 1984.
Brought in to bolster milk prices, these put strict limits on how much milk could be produced, meaning that farmers had to reduce the size of their herds, or even throw milk away.
Ms Burns, who took over the running of the family farm and production of Ardrahan follower her father’s death in 2000, says her dad was simply not prepared to see good milk go to waste.
“We had our milk – our milk was really, really good,” she says. “We weren’t going to throw it down the drain.”
And there was good reason why Mr Burns decided to go to Paris – back in the early 1980s demand for French-style cheese was rather limited in an Ireland attached to its Cheddar-type cheeses, so he knew he had to find export markets.
Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers is another family-run Irish cheese business that was set up on a farm as a response to the introduction of EU milk quotas (which were finally revoked earlier this year).
Established in 1984 in County Tipperary, it is now run by couple Sarah and Sergio Furno, both 41, and produces 300 tonnes of cheese per year. Mrs Furno is the daugther of founders Louis and Jane Grubb.
In recent years, Cashel has increasingly focused on the vast US market, despite the challenges it presents.
“The US is a market complete with layers that don’t exist elsewhere,” says Mrs Furno, “such as brokers who act between distributors and retailers.”
This means a much longer supply chain, and so cheeses need to have a good shelf life.
Mrs Furno adds: “In the US I would not call us successful as distinct from being persistent.
“We simply have worked to keep our cheese available, despite intense competition from other European blue cheeses, and very good American farmstead blues.”
Led by the likes of Cashel, a whole host of Irish cheeses are now available in the US.
While data specifically for cheese is unavailable, Irish government figures show that dairy exports overall to the US rose by 35% to €10m ($10.7m; £7.1m) in the first half of 2014, compared with a year earlier.
Karen Coyle, North America director of Bord Bia, Ireland’s food board, says that Irish food exports benefit from the US’s very positive view of the country.
She says that in the US, Ireland is seen as a “luscious, green-grassed island” of passionate farmhouse producers.
In 2006, Ardrahan created a new creamy and milder cheese especially for the US market, called Duhallow.
The cheese has proved a hit in the US, and even featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Ireland’s artisan cheesemakers have also worked hard over the years to boost domestic sales, helped by the country getting increasingly more cosmopolitan in its tastes.
Mrs Furno says she works hard to increase knowledge and awareness of Cashel’s products, “spending a lot of time in dialogue with people” who want more information about the cheeses.
Producers have also worked hard, and in collaboration, to shorten their supply chains, which has helped them to reduce their prices.
John Hempenstall, owner of Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese, which produces 120 tonnes a year, says this has helped him cut prices by as much as 30%.
“As a result our cheese has started to sell in areas that aren’t particularly affluent,” he says, pointing to less well-off neighbourhoods of the capital Dublin.
“We are a bit of a treat people say they’ll give themselves.”