From Eyeries, on West Cork’s Beara Peninsula, the producers of Milleens Dote cheese are thrilled to have won a two-star 2019 Great Taste award, as well as a one-star for their Dunnes Stores Céad cheese.
Norman and Veronica Steele started cheese-making here in the mid-1970s, when there were 900 dairy farmers on the Beara Peninsula.
“Today, there are just four,” says their son, Quinlan, working with his wife Deirdre, running a beef herd and continuing the cheesemaking business, by buying in milk produced by other farmers.
His parents started making butter and yogurt. Norman grew a lot of vegetables, and made salami, which they supplied to local restaurants.
“The only Irish cheese on the market at the time was processed cheese. They started making cheese, just to have it for themselves. Their Milleens Cheese was an instant hit and drew national attention.
“Myrtle Allen, and Declan Ryan of Arbutus Lodge, tasted it in Sneem, and they asked what is this, where’s it from, they were delighted there was an Irish cheese.”
Quinlan is hugely proud of his parents.
What they did changed the country. It gave air to the artisan food market. Today, there are 70 Irish farmhouse cheesemakers.
Aside from Great Taste Awards, Milleens Cheese also won a silver award in the World Cheese Awards this year for a buffalo milk version of Milleens. Last year, they took a gold award for their Milleens Céad cheese.
“It is an honour to win such awards,” says Quinlan. “But you can’t let it go to your head. Cheesemaking is a humble, hardworking job, and you have to get up next morning at 6 am and get on with it. But getting these global merit awards really does mean a lot to us.”
Equally thrilled, with her first-ever two-stars at the Great Taste Awards (the ‘Oscars of the food industry’), was Nuala Hickey. She won the award with a traditional Christmas cake made with her late mother’s recipe.
Nuala is a fourth-generation baker at Hickey’s Bakery, Clonmel. She has won numerous one-star Great Taste accolades, most recently for her seeded soda bread, sourdough, and rhubarb and orange cake.
Nuala made her winning Christmas cake in February, and Great Taste judges tried it in May. Winning the two stars is fabulous, she says.
“We know we do a good Christmas cake, we’ve been using the same recipe for nearly 30 years. But to have this award behind it now is massive.”
Nuala’s mother, Margaret, passed away in August. Her recipe was a traditional one, with dried fruit, lemon juice, rinds of oranges, and many other ingredients (“there are lots of ingredients in a good cake” says Nuala), as well as whiskey.
“We add whiskey every few weeks to keep the cake soft.”
Hickey’s bakery is famous for its barm brack, with Great British Bake Off queen Mary Berry even arriving this Halloween to bake barm brack at the original bakehouse. Nuala’s grandfather, Éamon Hickey, set up the business in 1900. “He started with a bakery, a grocery store and a spirit store, there was a snug on fair days.
“We still hold the licence to sell alcohol. I set up the café, I’ve been here since I left school in the late ’80s.”
Out of a record-breaking 12,772 entries sent in from over 100 countries this year, 4,943 were awarded a Great Taste accolade.
And 432 of these are based in Ireland, with the star breakdown as follows: ten Irish and eight Northern Irish products were rated three-star (less than 3% of entries achieve this rating); 101 Irish and 62 Northern Irish products were awarded two stars (less than 10% of entries are); while 321 Irish and 109 Northern Irish took home one-star awards (about 25% of entries achieve this).
In Great Taste terms, the stars translate as follows: three-star is “extraordinarily tasty food”; two-star is “above and beyond delicious”; and one-star is “food that delivers fantastic flavour” (visit greattasteawards.co.uk).