West Clare is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe. It also houses St Tola, where 260 goats are reared and produce some of the finest organic milk, writes Ray Ryan.
THE grass that grows in and around the Burren is unique to an area that can justifiably claim to be one of Europe’s great natural heritage sites. It is no surprise, therefore, that the milk supplied by the goats for the handcrafted organic cheese, named after a local holy person, St Tola, is deemed to have special qualities.
The 260 goats reared by Siobhan Ní Ghairbhith, Inagh Farmhouse Cheese, the inspiration behind the St Tola brand, feed on the grass that has made the Burren and surrounding Clare countryside a place apart.
Moistened by fresh Atlantic winds, the Burren’s peaty soil and limestone elements grow natural herbs and wild flowers, such as meadowsweet, honeysuckle, and wild garlic, deemed to be perfect for grazing goats and sheep.
The traditional belief of people in rural Ireland, that goat’s milk has curative properties for asthma and eczema, adds to the overall appeal of St Tola’s organic cheese.
The St Tola herd of Saanen, Toggenburg, and British Alpine goats are reared outdoors in the summer on some of the finest, purest farmland of its type in Europe.
During the winter they are housed indoors in comfortable, clean, spacious sheds and are fed on a balanced mix of organic hay grown on the farm. Their diet is supplemented with organic grains.
The St Tola cheeses were originally made by Meg and Derrick Gordon. When they retired in the late-1990s, the business was taken over by neighbour Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith.
“At St Tola we are inspired by the beauty of our natural surroundings and our cheeses reflect the clean, pure environment from which they come,” she said.
Siobhan, a former primary school teacher in Galway, recalls how she got excited as a child visiting the Gordons with her parents and seeing the goats. Like most farms in west Clare, her own family farm was small and Siobhan didn’t fancy going into dairying because she didn’t see potential.
“I just saw St Tola as an interesting alternative and something that was of real interest to me. I’d spent a lot of my childhood doing odd jobs on Meg and Derrick’s farm.”
Siobhan gave up her teaching post and went to work with Meg and Derrick on a full-time basis and learned the skills of making goat’s cheese. “Some people would have said I was mad to do so but I was passionate to do something with the family farm,” she recalled.
A purpose-built cheese house and a housing and milking parlour were developed, and in Jul 1999, she moved her goats to the farm.
She said producing organic goat’s cheese is not just a matter of pressing a button at one end and the cheese coming out the other. “We make the cheese in small batches every day, with the milk from that day. The artisanal quality of our cheese is paramount. The moulds we use are handcrafted and we then fill them by hand,” she said.
Siobhan, a registered organic producer with the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, participates in Bord Bia’s Origin Green programme and is a member of Burren Food Trail.
A former chairperson of CAIS, the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association, she is a member of Slow Food Ireland and the Taste Council, and is a Fáilte Ireland Food Ambassador.
St Tola has been supported by Bord Bia, the Department of Agriculture, Clare County Enterprise Board, Teagasc, Limerick Institute of Technology (Research and Development) and LEADER — National Rural Network.
Siobhan said she has noticed a recent watering down of interest among the powers that be in the organic system of food production. She said the roles of the Department of Agriculture and that of Bord Bia embrace all farmers. But in France there is a single statutory authority solely responsible for the organic sector, and she feels there should be a similar body here.
Siobhan said it is becoming more challenging to farm organically, particularly in the peaty land of west Clare. Rules within organics need to evolve as the climate changes. Otherwise, she said, businesses like Inagh Farmhouse Cheese will not be able to continue farming organically.
Meanwhile, as people become more health conscious, there is clearly an increasing demand for the goat’s cheese that is made in a lovely part of Co Clare.
It can be bought in farmers’ markets, independent food retail outlets, Super Valu and Tesco stores, and is on restaurant menus. Organic milk from the herd is also available locally.
“Our vision is the long-term sustainability of our farm and our food products for the health and benefit of everyone concerned,” Siobhan said.
“That includes the animals that graze on our land, the land itself, and the people who consume our products.”
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