If all goes according to plan at a new halloumi cheese production venture and interest continues to grow, there will be scope for sheep and goat milk farmers to develop their flocks and their production capacity to make Ireland a powerhouse for halloumi and other types of Mediterranean – unripened – cheese.

That’s the perspective of Omar Haqql who, along with a fellow Jordanian and a Greek woman, recently established the start-up cheese maker The Proper Dairy Company.

Founded in May of last year and at the height of the pandemic, The Proper Dairy Company is a co-operation of three recent arrivals into this country: Jordanians Omar Haqqi and Ayman Al Zou’bi and Anna Elrifai from Greece.

“In addition to the three of us, we also have a group of six shareholders who reside outside of Ireland,” Omar said.

The Proper Dairy Company operates out of Moorepark Technology’s state-of-the art facility in Fermoy, Co. Cork.

“We blend traditional time-tested methods with modern techniques to produce the world’s best all-Irish grass-fed farmhouse style halloumi cheese and halloumi cheese value-added products,” Omar contended.

“Our philosophy is that dairy can be a farmhouse product and can be made from the full spectrum of milk – not semi-skimmed or altered milk.

“The farmer can receive a fair price and the consumer can enjoy it all at a reasonable and fair cost. This is reflected in our cheese that is simply far better than any import and brings to mind the traditional ‘Mediterranean village’ flavour that you simply cannot buy on supermarket shelves anymore,” said Omar.

These days the dairy industry is all about standardising and industrialising. The result for the consumer is that you end up with a product that is just nowhere near what this cheese should traditionally be.

“For example, I worked in Cyprus for about a year in 1999 and the family for whom I was working used to invite me in to have halloumi and watermelon in the summer.

“The halloumi I had was absolutely phenomenal because it was made in the nearby village and was a very seasonal product. After I left Cyprus, I was always hunting around supermarket shelves in different parts of the world looking for authentic Cypriot halloumi.

“Sadly I never found it for the one simple reason in that whatever I had in that village, was never meant for export and what you find on retailer shelves has been so badly industrialised that it has lost all connection to what halloumi should be; a beautiful, delicious, full cream all natural cheese that is bursting with flavour and goodness. That is what is special about our cheese. We refuse to compromise.”

Everyone and anyone to apply

Participation in the Bord Bia Foodworks programme, Omar said, was invaluable. “It was an absolute lifesaver for us because it helped prep us as a business and as newcomers to the market, opened up doors, made all the right introductions as well as offering us a wealth of research training and market information that would have otherwise been very difficult to reach.

“It was a privilege being on that programme and I would encourage everyone and anyone to apply,” said Omar.

“We are currently making about 1t of cheese every two weeks. We are expecting to go up to a tonne per week and then possibly higher as new markets open up. Our daily production capacity is about one metric tonne.”

In the last week the business has sought four people to be available on production day. “We expect these will be with us on a more permanent basis as we move forward,” said Omar.

Sheep milk is supplied by Brendan and Michael Crosse, Sheep Milk Ireland and Michael Flanagan, Rockfield Dairy.

Goat milk is sourced from Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith, John Harrington and Carmen Gal, St. Tola Goat farm and Jim, Breda, Seamus and Norma Leahy, Bally Goat Farm.

Cow’s milk comes from Tipperary Co-Op.

Business has continued during lockdown. “Fortunately, we have been able to continue to do test runs and more recently our production runs at Moorepark Technology in spite of the lockdown.

“Although food service has been very heavily impacted with the whole Covid situation, the uptake in retail has been strong. We can honestly say that we have been very fortunate to have been able to build and establish at a time when many have been facing difficulties. We hope that the situation improves soon for everyone,” said Omar.