Engineering a future in cheese

A woman who had worked around the world as an electrical engineer for leading multinational companies has achieved her dream of becoming a successful farmhouse cheese producer in Co Cork.
Engineering a future in cheese

Her story was one of the cases outlined at a recent symposium at University College Cork, where a diploma programme in speciality food production is now 10 years in existence.

Norma Dinneen, of Bó Rua Farm in Ballynoe, graduated under the programme in 2014 and, with her husband Tom, set about producing cheese with the finest milk from their contented Montbeliarde herd, also known as the ‘red cows’.

She said completing the diploma course provided Bó Rua Farm with all the ingredients for establishing a successful food business.

Bó Rua Farm, where Tom and his forebears have been farming for generations, is named after the cows, because of their distinctive rust-coloured markings.

It was here that Norma discovered her true vocation: The time-honoured craft of making cheese. She combined her passion for fine food with lessons learned whilst studying for the diploma at UCC. She secured funding from Enterprise Ireland and, working with Teagasc, refined her recipes, experimenting, testing and tasting, until finally she had crafted a well-balanced and elegant farmhouse, Cheddar-style cheese.

With more varieties to follow, while maintaining a handmade approach, Bó Rua Farm aims to become one of Ireland’s leading farmhouse cheese producers; a name on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Norma, a native of Castlelack, near Bandon in West Cork, was one of several graduates of the diploma to address the recent symposium.

Nüsli founder Dermot Hanley said Irish food is going through an exciting period of development. Great things are happening as a result of the enthusiasm of foodies from different backgrounds meeting the knowledge of experts at places such as UCC.

Hanley spent more than 20 years as an investment banker in Toronto and New York, before embarking on his lifelong ambition to start his own food business by studying UCC’s diploma in specialty food production.

Philip O’Connor, a business and law graduate, who had previously worked as a marketing executive with Mercedes-Benz and Bass Ireland, set up Seymours Irish Biscuits in 2006 after completing the diploma. He said it cemented his commitment to starting a food business from scratch, providing him with the know-how, resources and, most importantly, the confidence to get started.

Another graduate, artisan food producer Peter Randall, of Ayle Foods, Oola, Co Tipperary, makes a range of chutneys, relishes, preserves, and cooking sauces. The company has won gold for its beetroot chutney at the Blas na hÉireann Irish foods awards in 2013 and 2014.

Lidl’s director of buying, Liam Casey, who previously worked in financial services with Citigroup, said Ireland is a hugely exciting country for a food retailer, with some real innovation happening countrywide.

The one-year, part-time course, with Angela Sheehan as manager, is a partnership between UCC and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine. The next cycle will commence in September.

In recent years, Ireland, as elsewhere in Europe, has seen considerable growth in the small food-enterprise sector, which is characterised by craftmanship and a “hand-made” element, producing low-volume, high-quality food.

Students come to the course from a variety of backgrounds, including speciality food producers, farmers who wish to add value to their farm produce, and retailers anxious to expand into the organic and artisan food sector.

It also appeals to restaurateurs and chefs, environmental health officers, and others working in support agencies who wish to increase their knowledge and understanding of the speciality food sector.

A large number of graduates are now successfully running small enterprises from their home, farm or small production unit; or have further developed and improved existing small businesses.

Minister of state for agriculture Tom Hayes said the diploma programme has played a key role in equipping 161 students with skills to establish food businesses, which add a further dimension to the Irish food story.

Food Harvest 2020 identified the need to support artisan entrepreneurship, collaboration, regional food strengths and skills.

“Their achievements are a credit to the Food Industry Training Unit, whose team drive themselves and their students to excel in all they do, and to the college of science, engineering, and food science,” said Mr Hayes.

Colin Greensmith, development chef at Pallas Foods, Limerick, outllined how the food-distribution company supports local producers, chefs and food businesses.

“We have a vibrant and exciting artisan food movement in Ireland, which is as good as anywhere in the world. Our waters and land provide the perfect environment to produce premium-class food from both traditional and less obvious sources. At Pallas Foods we try to bring top-class Irish food to all corners of the country and support independent producers, farmers and growers,” he said.

Eileen Bentley, entrepreneurship manager, Bord Bia, said the vibrancy’s of Ireland’s food sector is testament to the blend of a significant food start-up community and the quality and integrity of the established artisan specialty producers.

Paul Ross, head of college of science, engineering, and food science at UCC, said the college has a major commitment to education, research and continuing professional development in food science and technology and food business.

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