This week, “the cream of Irish farmhouse cheesemakers” gathered at Killruddery House in Bray, Co. Wicklow, for the sector’s gala: the Irish Cheese Awards 2021.

Organised by Cáis, the Association of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers, the biannual event celebrates Ireland’s farmhouse-cheese sector.

Now in its ninth year, the all-island event, which is the only dedicated competition for the sector, received entries from over 50 companies with a total of 220 cheeses – the largest number of entries ever recorded for the event.

Depth and breadth of talent

The keynote address at this year’s awards ceremony was delivered by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, who offered his congratulations to all those who were nominated this year as well as those who received awards.

Dave Merrins and Damien Martyn from Aillwee Cave in Ballyvaughan, Co. Clare, awarded bronze for its Burren Gold cheese at the 2021 Irish Cheese Awards. Image source: Finbarr O’Rourke

“An astonishing 220 cheeses, from mature to mild, which have been entered by 50 cheesemakers, have been judged which shows just the depth and breadth of talent in the sector,” the minister said.

“The wide range of cheese that is produced in Ireland is incredibly important in terms of increasing added value to our cheese sector.

“The quality of Irish milk produced from our sustainable grass-based production system contributes enormously to the success of the Irish cheese industry.

“I again congratulate the winners as well as those who were nominated. Their hard work and dedication to the craft of cheese mongering is one of the main reasons Ireland has such an impressively successful cheese sector.” 

Award-winning cheeses

The Irish Cheese Awards is comprised of 16 classes from soft, blue, semi-hard and hard cheeses. In addition to the classes, there are also awards for Best New Cheese, Best Raw Milk Cheese and the highly-coveted Supreme Champion, a title awarded to the producer of the “most outstanding” cheese which has been entered at the awards.

The cheeses entered were judged by a team of 15 experts with products assessed under the following criteria: aroma; flavour; body and texture; and overall appearance. 

Judging for the competition is ‘blind’ with all packaging and labelling removed allowing each cheese to speak for itself. 

32 Irish cheesemakers received awards at this year’s event.

Teresa Roche from Kylemore Farmhouse in Co. Galway pictured with the cheese awarded silver at the 2021 Irish Cheese Awards. Image source: Finbarr O’Rourke

The Supreme Champion award went to ‘Templegall’ by Hegarty Cheese in Co. Cork. This cow’s milk cheese also scooped gold in the Mature Hard Cheese Aged Over Six Months category.

In the Best New Cheese category, there was no gold winner, but silver was awarded to Galway Sinan for its ‘Galway Cheese’, and bronze was awarded to two cheesemakers: Macroom Buffalo Cheese for its ‘Buffaloumi’ and Tullahay Farm for its ‘Farm Fresh Soft Cheese’.

Appreciation Awards were presented to Eugene Carr of Traditional Cheese Company and Michael Horgan of Horgan’s Delicatessen Supplies for their support of Irish farmhouse cheese down through the years.

Speaking at the event, chef and MC Rory O’Connell said that he feels “immensely proud of the work of these wonderful artisans whose products play a key role in my cooking life”.

“Cheese is almost unique in that it can seem appropriate to eat any time of the day. I am as happy eating it with breakfast as I am after a lovely dinner,” O’Connell said. 

“Both at home and abroad there are few things that give me greater pleasure than introducing my students and guests to the world-class cheeses made here at home in Ireland.”

The Irish farmhouse cheese sector

The Irish farmhouse cheese sector is valued at €27 million at farmgate value, according to Bord Bia.

The sector employs some 300 people and 46% of the Irish farmhouse cheesemakers on the market have set up business in the past 10 years. 

Tom Dinneen of Bó Rua and chair of Cáis said that for Irish farmhouse cheesemakers, the awards event “is an important date in our calendar, as we come together as a community to celebrate our achievements”.

“This year the judges had the particularly difficult task of putting the eclectic variety of 220 cheeses entered to the taste test to identify their chosen worthy award-winners. 

“While the Irish Cheese Awards recognise individual excellence, every farmhouse cheesemaker can take an equal share of the credit for the outstanding contribution that the sector continues to make to Irish food culture, our rural communities and the dairy industry.”