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Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.

Sláinte: Irish Cowgirls - Three Award-Winning Cheesemakers

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Sue Conley and Peggy Smith.

My friend Vickie’s face blossoms with one of those secret smiles when I tell her she’s a cheesy broad. Truth of the matter is, she’s a cheese guru who, given the slightest opportunity, will launch into a lengthy monologue on the subtle differences between cow, goat and sheep cheeses, the chemistry involved in making cheese, and the why and wherefore of which cheese is best at what time of year. Little does Vickie know that I stumbled upon the mystery and magic of cheese when I was but a small girl.

One night in the 1950’s, my parents went to a party and I slept over at my Aunt Matilda’s house. Fully aware that we were breaking Mom’s bedtime rules, Aunt Tilda and I stayed up to watch her favorite late night TV program – The Jack Parr Show. That in itself was memorable, but equally so was the Italian cheese we nibbled all evening. I remember marveling that it was delicious despite the fact that it ‘smelled like the circus menagerie!’ 

Back then American cheese was boring. Unless you sought out a wedge of aged Parmesan or a wax-covered Provolone ball in an Italian deli, the most exotic cheese you could easily come by was a brown ceramic crock of processed cheddar mixed with port wine. Fast forward a few decades and the cheese world began to spin in a dizzying back-to-the-future revolution. And it was Ireland that led the charge! 

At the center of the commotion was a County Cork woman named Veronica Steele. Fed up with factory cheese that she referred to as ‘spotless, sterile, pre-packed portions sweating in plastic,’ the Steeles bought a farm and a one-horned cow named Brisket, and Veronica started experimenting. The result was Ireland’s famous Milleens, a handmade artisan cheese with a mottled peach washed rind, an interior soft paste that goes from semi-firm to spilling cream, and a flavor mix of delicate herbs with a spicy tang. “When Veronica first made this cheese in 1976, it is sure she did not realize that it would be known as the cheese where the story of modern Irish farmhouse cheese making begins.” (Bord Bia)

The real history of Irish cheese making reaches back many centuries earlier. In ancient Ireland, wealth was measured in livestock, especially cattle, and dairy products known as ‘white meat’ played a key role in everyone’s diet. The 7th- and 8th-century Brehon Laws note that in summer and autumn, when the animals produced copious milk for their offspring, the population’s main diet consisted of butter, milk and cheese curds. The 9th-century Life of Saint Patrick states that tithes and taxes were often paid with curds, and the 11th-century tale Aislinge meic Conglinne relates how the Ardagh scholar MacConglinne ‘greedy and hungry for white-meats’ set out to visit the court of the Munster king where he hoped to find adventure plus a wondrous cornucopia of good things to eat. 

While cow’s milk was the most common source of ‘white meat,’ the milk of goats and sheep is also mentioned in early records. Goat’s milk, now known to be more easily digested than cow’s milk due to its low lactose content, was rightly, though serendipitously, believed to be the best food for children and invalids. Sheep’s milk was considered a luxury, possibly because sheep produce much less milk than cows. 

From these three milks the Irish made many cheeses: tanach, a hard-pressed skim milk cheese; that, a soft cheese made from warm sour milk curds; gruth, a curdy buttermilk cheese; mulchan, a soft buttermilk cheese that was pressed and molded; and milsean, sweet milk curds that were eaten at the end of a banquet or festival feast. A semi-soft cream cheese made from thick sweet cream with a bit of salt and dry mustard was also popular.

Cheese is even mentioned in accounts of Saint Patrick and Saint Brigid, Ireland’s patrons. Patrick is said to have had a cheese maker in his retinue on his missionary travels. Legend tells that Brigid once made enough cheese to feed all the people of Leinster with just a few cups of milk. For that reason she is the patroness of dairy workers. 

Just as Ireland’s farmhouse cheese making experienced a renaissance in the 1970’s, so did America’s ten years later with the founding of the American Cheese Society in 1983. Not surprisingly, three Irish-American women were pioneers of the movement.
In 1993, Peggy Smith and Sue Conley, both veterans of California’s whole food revolution, launched Tomales Bay Foods to promote the products of local dairy farms.

Access to the best organic milk in the region and meeting up with master cheese maker Maureen Cunnie led naturally to their next venture: cheese making under the label Cowgirl Creamery, a title that reflects the indefatigable spirit of women in America’s ‘wild west.’ A converted hay barn soon housed the cheese-making facility, plus a market offering artisan cheeses from all parts of the United States, a boutique featuring natural fabric clothing, an organic produce stand, and a deli serving delicious, wholesome foods. 

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