Why rural Ireland is increasingly saying ‘cheese’

A symposium exploring the culture, taste and quality of Irish cheese may help producers to more accurately describe the taste and scent of their products, thereby boosting sales.

Organised by the National Dairy Council, the symposium on cheese culture in Dublin’s Dean Hotel took place yesterday, Monday May 9.

Lisbeth Ankersen, from InnovaConsult in Denmark outlined the factors affecting the flavour and scent of cheese, ranging from storage and preparation before serving, to the original raw materials in terms of the quality of the milk used.

“From research comparing milk and cheese from cows on pasture, to cows in barns all year round, we see a healthier fat profile in the milk and cheese from cows on pasture,” said Ankersen.

It has also been shown that the composition of the flavour compounds in grass and other plants in the field is reflected in the composition of the milk.

“When correlating this with sensory analysis, the milk and cheese is often described as more complex, with more green/grass notes and more stable notes,” said Ankersen.

Ankersen’s analysis of Irish cheese flavours and food pairing suggestions on pairing cheese with other foods are available in a new booklet on Ireland’s Cheese Culture & Cuisine, which was launched at the symposium and available at www.ndc.ie/publications/newsletters.asp

‘This Miraculous Food’

The symposium included a cheese tasting and discussion on Ireland’s relationship with cheese by notable cheesemaker Kevin Sheridan.

He explored the background to the development of Ireland’s creamery cheese industry leading up to the start of modern farmhouse cheese-making in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

He also discussed how the consumer’s relationship with cheese has changed over the last 30 years.

“Going back into our Celtic history, our story as a people has been closely linked to milk and the foods we have produced from this miraculous food,” said Mr. Sheridan.

“Over the last few decades, we have expanded our relationship with cheese from a staple nutritious food to one which can also offer a diverse range of flavours and textures whilst also reflecting the unique craftsmanship of producers and the many landscapes we farm.

We now take our place not only as one of the greatest cheese-producing nations in volume and quality, but also in the diversity and creativity of what we produce,” said Mr. Sheridan.

Author, journalist and broadcaster Suzanne Campbell said that there are over a thousand varieties of cheeses produced in Europe and that Ireland is increasingly renowned for its grass-based cheeses.

“Across all categories of cheese in Ireland we are producing products with award-winning taste and superb quality,” said Ms. Campbell.

“Every cheese has a story to tell and we have paired a great cheese-making pedigree in Ireland with innovation, producing everyday culinary foods that are so pleasurable to eat.”

Cheese Culture ‘Evident in Medieval Times’

“Documentary evidence shows that dairy produce was a staple of the Irish diet from at least the early medieval period [c700 – 1200],” explained Regina Sexton, a food and culinary historian from University College Cork, who is also a food writer, broadcaster and cook.

“However the turbulent 17th century destroyed the pastoral economy of the Gaelic Irish, coupled with the diversion of milk and cream into butter production, which resulted in the disappearance of that cheese culture in Ireland.”

Ireland has had a buoyant cheese-making industry again since the second half of the 20th century, said Sexton, with creameries expanding into cheese following the emergence of the co-operative movement in the late 19th century, said Sexton.

She said this was also coupled with the development of small-scale, home-based, hand-made cheese from the 1970’s.