Blessed Are the Cheesemakers

IMG_4421Everything is fluid movement, orchestrated in the silent chaos of stainless steel and curd. The noise is deafening in intervals of transition between space and necessity for more space.IMG_4765I spent two months on a farm in West Cork making cheese, challenging my muscles and my patience with things new and incomprehensible. I could feel this world around me slowly unfold into patterns of routine. I was discovering my temporary place in this well established dichotomy. The curds have made my hands soft. Washing them has made them dry and papery looking. New bruises, scars and scrapes mark their surface with my daily lessons. I look at them now with admiration.IMG_2203Weekends lent themselves to experimenting in the quiet space of the dairy. I wanted to see if I could make my own cheeses using the methods I was learning. Small scale. My friend and co-experimenter, Gemma, tried our hand at this mysterious transition of milk to cheese.

IMG_4764The process of cheese making is a simple function of nature doing its thing. Yet as we know anything nature does that looks simple, is  highly complex and layered with chemistry. We wanted to know about each. How does the simplicity of milk transition into its unique intricacies? Cheese is a lesson in patience and observation.
We begin by pulling milk from the morning, slowing bringing the temperature up to add starters and our rennet.IMG_4857IMG_4859testing the PH levels to make sure our acidity rises a bitIMG_5098

Bubble wrapped for warmth and a rest IMG_4860in the quiet moments of rest we are researching and making notes…lots of notesIMG_5093it’s working. The rennet has solidified the curd and separated from the wheyIMG_4862Now it is time to cut the curd, stir it and test it for consistency…just a little more heat and another restIMG_4863 IMG_4865 IMG_4867filling the mold where it will be turned twice and then left to press overnight.  IMG_4870IMG_5103 IMG_4873next day calls for a nice soak in the brine bathIMG_4771followed by a series of days turning, washing and caring for this little one as the rind slowly turns from white to pale butter yellow. with soft pink rind leading to a final thin coat of white mold…IMG_4951
IMG_5095 IMG_4952IMG_5462 IMG_5469 Now i must confess that although this cheese began as a Gubbeen it very much became a Mooney-Boniface. I am not disappointed. This was such an experience of process and experiment. It is incredible to use the same milk, starters, rennet, brine and wash and come up with a completely unique cheese. The aroma was pungent and mushroomy The texture was delicate and creamy. The flavor was nutty and slightly acidic. I think for my first wash-rind from start to finish it was a lovely cheese. We savored every last bite.

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“Do what you love, love what you do”

IMG_5068As many of you know, I am living in Ireland making Gubbeen Cheese. After a furiously fast six weeks, I realize two things; i have learned a great deal about cheese production and the difficulties and passion that is necessary to do this for a living, and that I have barely skimmed the surface…no pun there, i swear…maybe.
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There are some remarkable cheeses made here in Ireland and there are these pioneers who began this industry in the 70’s out of necessity and a massive love of cheese. Before all the bureaucratic nonsense regulating the dairy industry, most people had a few cows and had excess milk. What better way to fix that then to make cheese! These people were self starters, learning from each other and any text they could get their hands on. Most had traveled to Spain or France and learned from other small producers.

IMG_4991This last weekend Gemma and I took the big white van and headed over to visit Cashel Creamery in Tipperary. The land here has been farmed for centuries, being some of the most rich fertile and sought after soil in all of Ireland. We met up with Louis Grubb for a tour and to see how this large production creamery makes it’s world famous cow and sheep blues. We were lucky enough to arrive for production and see the curds pressed into their molds. Blues are inoculated with penicillin to create the beautiful blue ribbons of mold. Each cheese is turned in it’s mold for 24 hours before being brined, poked with long needles to inject spores deep into the center and then hand turned for several days.

IMG_5009 IMG_4998IMG_5001 I was curious if the aroma of the blue was going to knock me over but the curing rooms were rich and nutty. Beautiful cheeses!!

IMG_5007Armed with our gifts of Cashel and Crozier, we spent the night in the town of Cashel visiting the infamous Cashel Rock and a 12th century Abbey. the weather was cold, wet and windy with moments of sunshine so we were lucky to be the only people wandering through the ruins…

IMG_5057 IMG_5051 IMG_5021The next day, we drove back to  County Cork, past Cork City and out onto the Beara Peninsula. WOW! This area is historically known for its copper mines and as we wrapped around infinite inlets and winding roads, we became more and more entralled with the land. The jagged rocky earth could not have been more different from our last visit and I was mystified how a cow dairy survived in this place.

IMG_5078We past the cemetery, and turned onto what we hoped was “the next tarred bouderain”. Apparently this just means bitty narrow road with tufts of grass growing out of the middle. What we did learn is that these roads were built by the farmers to move their dairy cows from field to milking parlor. Most of the cows could maneuver over a mile up these lanes, through their pastures, past other open pastures and turn at the appropriate drive to arrive in time for milking. Brilliant!

IMG_5064We did the same and arrived at Milleen’s farm to meet up with Norman and a very fussy goose. Norman and his wife Veronica raised their family, learning to make cheese and teach cheese making classes in their farm house high above the sea. Their production could not have been more different from Cashel. They were producing from about 15 tons of milk a year in one room of their kitchen. In the early 70’s, Veronica decided to make cheese because her single cow was producing more milk than she and her family could consume. gabhair00003Using “The Cheeses & Wines of England & France with Notes on Irish Whiskey” written by John Ehle from North Carolina, Veronica started experimenting with soft washed rind cheeses and now produces one of the most exquisite cheeses produced in Ireland. She also taught Jeffa Gill of Durrus  who in turn, produces her own wonderful and successful cheese.

IMG_5072 IMG_5073We sat in the kitchen of their farmhouse, listening to stories about the mishaps and success of making a farmhouse cheese while sharing bits of cheeses and Gubbeen Salami. I had a momentary love affair with their irish Setter. With regrets, we said our good-byes and headed out to explore the peninsula. We could not have asked for a more wonderful experience. Gemma was armed with several remarkable contacts in New Zealand and I am hoping to get out to Montana this summer to make cheese with Veronica!

IMG_5076 To say the least, thank you so much to both Louis Grubb and Veronica and Norman Steele for taking time to share your stories and cheese with us. It was an experience I will never forget and one that has inspired me greatly!IMG_5082

Christmas Means Carnage!

IMG_4599Christmas Day for me has become a pattern of recreating traditions I love so dearly and creating new ones. As the memories of my childhood will never be quite the same again, I have decided that I must take them with me no matter where I am in the world. Since my parents deaths I have spent Christmas in Jordan, Costa Rica and in the Green Bean with my tree and wonderful friends and family.  Spending Christmas with another family, experiencing their traditions, always makes me a bit melancholy for my own loss but I always find wonderful moments.

This year I am in Ireland with a most exceptional family. Six generations have farmed the land that I am now living on and a new generation has begun.

IMG_4515I awoke, as I always do on Christmas morning with a little sparkle in my eye. I love this season. I took a hot bath (no shower in my little flat) and prepared for my introduction to Black Velvets, Champagne and Guinness. I had also had a bit to drink the night before and volunteered to jump into the Atlantic for fun….ugh! IMG_4508I made my way down to the sea with Fingal and his family who only had one bit of wisdom, “You’ve done it now girl. Better get in, get out and find a nice bit of whiskey.” Noted.  The jump was invigorating! the sun was shining and as i unwrapped myself on the pier, the adrenaline around me, kept me going. Santa threw out insults from the warmth of his fat red suit and we all took a running jump. HOLY SHIT! when i started breathing again, i realized how fantastic this all was! I was bobbing around in the ocean at the bottom point of Ireland on Christmas day. Wonderful.

I located my shot of whiskey from a kind old man, jumped out of my suit and into my warm woolies and back to the house to learn about the Christmas goose. IMG_4519I knew the goose has been killed a couple days ago and was hanging somewhere. When we returned from my dip, I found Tom sitting in an old wooden chair in the barn, Christmas tunes belting out of the speakers overhead. The goose was sitting in his lap and feathers were everywhere. Being raised on a farm is such a way to raise your children! Life, death, sex, it is respected and understood and not overly dramatic. Oliver and Olan jumped straight into plucking and poking. Olan was most interested in eyes while Oliver was actually more interested in chicken coops and tractors.

IMG_4512IMG_4527As for me, this was my first goose, first plucking and gutting. Tom was a marvelous instructor. He pulled out bits and pieces, showing us, letting us touch and process. After the gutting came the burning to get the fluffs off before I was delegated to stuff him with mountains of sausage and stuffing.

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After this, it was time for a short nap, Christmas movies and a catch up on emails and loved ones back home.IMG_4541 IMG_4539

That evening we dined on goose and ham, duck fat potatoes, bread sauce (my new favorite thing) every vegetable imaginable, flaming puddings wtih brandy butter, lemoncello, wine, whiskey…on and on and on.IMG_4543

IMG_4555IMG_4561There were no prayers or speeches, just family, immeasurable love and me, their warmly welcomed and forever appreciative guest.

Week in Review

IMG_4487I seem to have more downtime this Christmas season than I expected so I am going to sit by my fire with my cup of tea and try to keep myself and you updated on my goings on in the world of West Cork

I am in Ireland…I keep saying this to myself hoping it sinks in; the picture in my mind actually unfolding into my reality. How often do you get that lucky??

IMG_4456I arrived three days ago, picked up by my new employers Giana and Tom Ferguson of Gubbeen Farm. For the next 10 weeks, I will be interning here with Giana and learning about all things cheese.

IMG_4449IMG_4503I have been living in Italy now for nine months. The food, chaos and juxtaposed simplicity of life is now ending. For nine months my life revolved around my 24 brilliant classmates. We studied theories and tradition, drank copious amounts of alcohol, ate everything from seafood pulled from the sea in front of us to donkey meat in the mountains.  I am ready for something different. I am ready for manual labor, working my muscles and simultaneously my mind, thoughtfully processing what I just experienced and what I want to do now.  I have no doubt both will be difficult tasks.

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IMG_4468Last night I had a moment of absolute euphoria, a feeling both profound and comforting. After a day of running around the farm collecting cured meats from the smoke house, filling crates for market day, learning how to turn the newly pressed cheeses, and meeting dozens of the most lovely locals and staff, I was asked to make dinner for the family. I stood in the old farmhouse, dried herbs and bobbles hanging from the low-beamed ceiling. A pile of wild mushrooms sizzling in the pan while a chubby puppy gnawed on my shoe begging to be picked up. Tom walked in, handing me a whiskey and soda while his farm calloused hand patted the back of my head, welcoming me into the fold. We listened to music and talked about the days ahead. Giana hung garlands of dried oranges, peppers, hops and anise pods from the window-sills and lit candles to celebrate the winter solstice; the rain pounding the old slate roof.  I took pause at what powers came together to place me here at this moment. This feels of home and quiet strength and a place to grow.IMG_4426

I have felt for some time that I was not ready to go back to Portland.  I am not done here. I knew that place would not be Italy. For all of its wonder and beauty, it was not home for me. Is it Ireland? Is this where I will move toward my next self? Perhaps. Time will tell but for the moment, I can think of no place I would rather be.

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Today Giana set me loose in the curing room; one rack to turn, two more to wash with wine and salt water and two more to inoculate. The process is repetitive. Giana told me that in repetition one can be truly immersed in process, creating a form of meditative perfection. This was the way to really understand what I was doing here. I never thought of it this way. I always get impatient with myself when I have to do the same thing over and over…today I tested myself. Without music or conversation I turned cheeses, 462 of them; washed, massaged and turned. I will see them become the beautiful washed-rind cheeses I’ve grown to love.IMG_4482

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Christmas Eve Eve…today is the final market day. I finished turning cheeses and walked a mile into Schull to help with the market. For some time I stood around feeling in the way and useless…until someone asked for a hunk of Cashel Blue..I can do that. Cut, weighed, wrapped. First sale. Done. Hundreds of people came through the small market area ordering hams and bacon and wheels of Gubbeen for the holidays. Santa was nearby playing the accordion. The sun popped up behind a cloud and flooded the waterfront with winter light. Christmas has arrived. I cant wait for market days to reopen in January!IMG_4500 IMG_4494 IMG_4490 IMG_4488