Picture the scene: it is early 1980s in rural Tipperary, and Jane Grubb, the young wife of Louis Grubb, who has returned to his late Father’s Farm, in Fethard Co. Tipperary, to run the business and keep it alive, is standing at her kitchen table, experimenting with cheese making. The couple have just bought a herd of 90 dairy cows who are grazing the 200 acre farm at Beechmount. Jane has an interest in food and cheese making and has completed a cheese making course. From here starts the amazing story of how a small cottage business becomes an Internationally respected brand name, grown slowly and organically over several generations of the Grubb family.
On a sunny May morning this week, we all travel down to the dairy in South Tipperary to meet Sarah Furno, Louis and Jane’s only daughter, who returned, in 2004, with her Italian husband Sergio, to run the family business. Both Sarah and her husband have extensive experience in wine tasting, which has added tremendous value to the maturing and tasting side of the Cashel Blue enterprise in recent years.
Sarah meets us with her 5 year old daughter Layla (her other daughter Anna joins us later in the morning). Layla is the same age as Étienne and this will be her first time to go into where the cheese is being made, Sarah tells us. This is something I am sure Étienne will really appreciate, when he is a little older and we recall our special visit, as a family, to where Cashel Blue cheese is made.
The Family Farm
When we meet Sarah she immediately wants to impart to us the importance of the ground we are standing on. This cheese making dairy , we are so privileged to be given a personal tour of, is situated on their family farm. It is of its place. It is a family run business, employing people who are all from the local area ( a staff of 20 in total, their first employee was Pat who was employed to help milk the cows in 1986, and still works with the family to this day).
It is clear to me that this fact, that we are standing on the family farm, the family ‘terroir’ (discussed again below) and the fact that their business, unlike so many others, has been saved from the ravages of industrialization, and is steeped in community and reflective of their local place, is fundamental to their enterprise, fundamental to their philosophy. This family and their staff do not make a ‘commodity’ for the market, but rather a unique food product, with tested quality, strong tradition and a commitment to it’s local place of origin.
The Uniqueness of Sheeps’ Milk
We enter the reception area of the dairy where we are introduced to the 4 cheeses made at the dairy . Many of us are familiar with ‘Cashel Blue’, a soft blue cheese made from cow’s milk; ‘Cashel Blue Organic’, is the organic variety of this cheese; a sheep’s cheese called ‘Crozier Blue’ which is a semi soft cheese, another one of their prized products, and ‘Shepherd’s Store’, a semi hard cheese, also made from sheep’s milk.
Sarah engages the boys by asking them if they can guess how many liters of milk it might take to make a kilo and a half of cheese? The boys are given a cheese of this weight to hold and guess and Sarah goes on to tell them that a sheep produces about 2 liters of milk a day; a goat about 4 liters; a Buffalo about 7 and a cow on average about 27. So if we hold this chunk of cheese in our hands (this particular one is made from sheep’s milk), we have to think about the work that has gone into producing this. It took a massive 14 liters of milk to make that kilo and a half of sheeps’ cheese!.
The moral of this story? Not many farm businesses make sheeps’ cheese in Europe to-day. It is a lot of work, it is expensive to produce and buy and as a result, has earned the justified title ‘liquid gold’ .
Our Special Visit
Life in the diary is busy, intense, especially in the morning as most of the cheese making for the day is completed by 1.30pm, so we are aware we are very lucky to be given this opportunity to actually see the process happening. Not many do.
Getting dressed to enter the factory is the first step, and we are given plastic covers for our clothes; hats for our hair and plastic covers for our shoes. Étienne is a little overwhelmed and the tears fall for a few moments before he is transported to another world of cheese making. I comment, in the mind of a child, it is like entering ‘Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory’. What we are about to see is sooo…special.
In adult land there is a process to washing and disinfecting hands also, which we all do carefully.
The Cheese Making Process
We enter the production area then and Sarah shows us the huge vats where the milk is fermenting, at a specific temperature. The milk was delivered earlier in the morning from their own farm and from other local farms. To this milk has been added a starter and then a plant based Rennet and finally, essential for blue cheese making, a ‘mold’ called ‘Penicillium roqueforti’. This, with the introduction of something all around us – air – will eventually produce the blue colour, texture and flavor we associate with this famous Cashel Blue cheese.
Bread, Beer and Cheese – Micro Organisms and their amazing Power
My readers will remember earlier blogs discussing the use of yeast in bread making and in beer making, and the role these agents play in creating the originality of the product. The air, as mentioned, is also very important, as it too has natural agents that give the cheese, in this instance, it’s distinctive characteristic.
What we are seeing, when we enter the main floor, are the large vats, and the process where the curd is being separated from the whey, and the ‘mold’ (which acts a bit like yeast in other food producing activities) has been added. The substance is stirred by hand using a type of paddle and ‘cut’ using a “Cheese Harp” to facilitate the fermenting process, until it eventually forms a gel like substance on the top, the process taking approximately 3 hours .
We see this work being done while Sarah allows us all to taste the curd and we note how sweet and gentle the flavor is. She points out the colour is slightly yellow, like Irish butter, because the cows have been predominantly grass fed, on the lush grasses of this part of rural Tipperary.
The meaning of the Word ‘Terroir’
All of the milk used in their cheeses come from a defined locality. A specific place. This corresponds to the classic winemaking concept of the ‘terroir’ as mentioned above. For Sarah a classic cheese should, like a classic wine, be a reflection of the soil and climate and all the other environmental factors of the locality from which it comes.
Respect for Our Environment
At Cashel Blue care has been taken to use solar and wind energy; care in purifying the waste-water they have used, and in the overall environmentally aware approach they take to producing their beautiful products.
Several more key stages follow – the whey is drained from the curd and the curd is put into moulds where it is ‘pressed’ (the length of time will reflect whether it is a hard or a soft cheese. Hard cheeses take longer to mould). When this process is complete the cheeses are then washed in a salty brine that both preserves and gives flavor to the cheese. We see these brine containers also on our tour.
Piercing and Turning the Maturing Cheese
The next stage is ‘piercing’ the cheese (adding in holes in simple language!), and as we saw in the photograph from the 80s earlier, it is particular, and very essential to blue cheese making, using a specifically designed stainless steel instrument. This is to allow the air to do its critical work. Later Sarah explains to us that key to Cashel Blue’s unique taste and flavor is the balance – it is not too strong, nor too spicy, in flavor. A stronger taste and a spicier flavor, would involve more air being introduced and a harder curd (the curd being moulded for longer) being used.
Storage rooms called “caves” are named after family members, which I found so endearing and we are led into each to see all the racks of cheese which are maturing and then sorted for dispatch. Temperature is very cool to cold in these units, but Sarah hardly seems to notice.
The cheeses are ‘turned’ several times a day in these ripening caves to ensure the right balance is emerging so that liquid in the cheese moves through the maturing product evenly. Sarah is central to this process and she oversees and inspects the cheese regularly during the 2-3 weeks they are in the caves, before being wrapped in special cheese foil for further maturing, for up to 4 months on the farm.
Wrapping in Foil to Complete Maturation
As mentioned, next in the process the cheeses are wrapped in special cheese foils for storage in various storage units called maturing rooms. Each vat of cheese in storage is tasted several times along its path of maturation to follow the development of flavor and texture to just the right point. In all there are 65 thousand kilos of cheese at the dairy on an average day. Much much more in the lead up to Christmas.
Released to the market when they have been fully approved by Sarah and Sergio, Sarah explains the ‘aging’ is not to create ‘strength of flavor’ but rather to create ‘balance’ of flavor. Cashel Blue for instance is not a ‘sharp’ taste. It is a gentle, ’round’ taste, but with no compromise on flavor. Hence its uniqueness. Balance is so important, she reiterates – that is the point of difference, for Cashel Blue cheese.
They also hand cut the cheese and have all their own packaging equipment, so what you see and buy in the shops have been cut by the staff at the dairy.
A lot of their cheeses go directly to restaurants, Tesco and food suppliers, though they also have a growing International market shipping to various parts of the world, including Britain, United States, Europe and even Japan. The cheese, when ready for the market, has a 7 month shelf life.
What does Tipperary mean to Sarah, I ask?
‘Tipperary is home’ she says. ‘Tipperary for me is about the richness of the land – the pasture, hedgerows, trees, a strong connection to agriculture, agriculture being the dominant income for a lot of people. Very few people you meet in Tipperary don’t have some connection to the land. You can’t say that of every county in Ireland. Tourism does not come first. Agriculture comes first. Living from the land. What I particularly love about this area where we live, we are close to Coolmore actually, and I think they have added value to the land, in the same way with what we have done here at Cashel – we have added value to the land – we have brought something from here which has gained respect outside of its own region.
So good land, stable community, where people do commute to maybe Dublin or Cork but comparative to other areas, people do try to stay in the area which gives that stability’.
How better to complete our tour of this Tipperary institution than with some cheese tasting before we head home.
Back in My Kitchen
I have used Cashel Blue in a delicious winter pear dish that I first came across from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa) . More recently I have been using it in summer salads when barbecuing chicken or scallops. Even the rind, Sarah tells me, can be used, if mixed with butter and herbs and plopped onto burgers or steak or into a soup, to add special flavor.
Cashel Blue is a story of how a business grown slowly and organically over time can have a huge reach. This is an institution, in the form of a family farm, we can be very proud to say is 100% Tipperary.
Sincere thanks to Sarah for making our visit so special and for several of the images used.
Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers
Beechmount, Fethard, County Tipperary,
tel: +353 52 6131151
fax: +353 52 6131066