Fergusons’ farmhouse cheeses bring global spotlight to Ireland

Catherine Ketch talks to Tom and Giana Ferguson, whose Gubbeen Cheese enjoys international fame

Darina Allen addressing the farm visit at Gubbeen during the Annual European Cheese Makers’ Congress at UCC, hosted by CAIS (Association of Irish Farm house Cheesemakers). Included in the photo is Fingal Ferguson of Gubbeen.Pictured, left: Newly-hatched chickens at Gubbeen.

People attending the farm visit to Gubbeen; and some cattle still indoors due to weather.

TOM and Giana Ferguson say they got lucky this year where fodder for their dairy herd is concerned. For the first time 24 heifers from the farm went out to be contract reared, which took the pressure off.

The Fergusons produce Gubbeen Farmhouse Cheese, a semi-soft rind washed cheese near Schull, Co Cork. They opened the farm for the recent Annual European Cheese Makers Congress hosted for the first time by CÁIS the Irish Farmhouse Cheese Association at UCC.

“We had enough going into the winter because we got lucky with our first cut last year. The second cut was useless, but we were sparing it from the beginning. We’re grazing the silage run now and it’s going to catch up with us next year so we’ll have to reduce our numbers to match,” Tom explained.

Giana says it was sheer luck that Tom moved the heifers this year. “He takes his silage over and beyond need every year and this year, of course, it saved our bacon,” Giana said.

It is down to more than luck, however, when 250 adjusted acres in West Cork can support the equivalent of 18 full-time jobs. Scratch the surface and you find generations of entrepreneurship, education, strong European links and sheer common sense.

A herd of 120 cows are milked 20 at a time taking 1¼ hours at 7am and 5pm. Cheese is made four days from Monday to Thursday. “We save the milk from Friday until Monday. On Monday morning we’ll use the Friday and Saturday milk,” Tom explained to the European and Irish visitors.

The pasteuriser is gravity fed and with two bulk tanks — 7,000 and 3,000L one is filling while the other is emptying always keeping the milk fresh. They stagger calving across the year calving four a week for eight months.

“If you were to put in 15 fresh cows every week you just couldn’t use that milk for cheese. It just wouldn’t be the same,” Tom said.

They keep some of their quota in Drinagh Coop for holidays and if there is down time with a vat they will take away a couple of thousand litres.

“They love us as we’d be down for a couple of weeks at Christmas and they get quality milk without having to pay bonuses for it,” Tom said.

Smaller New Zealand type Friesians are chosen for what is steep rocky ground. Tom describes the land as black and boggy. “If they don’t sink it means there’s rock under them,” he laughs.

Giana says Tom spends his life studying bulls and does his own AI. “So although we don’t standardise our milk as a normal cheese factory would, from various farms, we do our own form of standardisation. That’s Tom’s skill with the AI and the calving programme,” she said.

The composition of the Gubbeen herd milk for the year to date is butterfat, 3.97%; protein 3.37%; lactose 4.54%.

Speaking at the farm visit, food writer John McKenna praised the unique nature of every Irish farmhouse cheese versus the homogeneity in some continental countries.

A MA student who studied the Gubbeen rind analysed the bugs and found two unique to Gubbeen. Hence Gubbeen appears on a list of rind bacteria in Europe. However, he adds the same would be true for any dairy. “It’s just what grows in that area,” Tom says. He further explains that Brie and Camembert started out as the same cheese. “One of the members of the family married Mr Camembert and went over the hill to a different region and that’s why they’re two different cheeses,” he says.

There’s no such thing as being competitive in cheese, Tom says, because people will always buy a selection. “There’s no such thing as not helping anyone else. They’re all unique products,” he says.

The West Cork Fergusons originated from Carrickfergus five generations ago but are part of the West Cork landscape now. Dairying, Giana says, has always been at the heart of the family but she sees the entrepreneurial spirit there too.

“When nobody kept chickens Tom’s mother put down a form she invented herself, a form of deep litter. She got peat moss in out of the bog. In the ’50s she opened up Gubbeen as a farm guesthouse, making a special point of explaining that the produce was from the farm and local.

“One of the most wonderful things coming in and marrying into the family was their flexibility, always listening to people’s ideas, that’s an amazing trait. So if someone as daft as the new daughter-in-law says she wants to make cheese which was unheard of they didn’t say why, they said how?” Giana said.

Tom, she says, followed the West Cork tradition of going west for horse and east for woman. Giana was mainly brought up in London with a Hungarian grandfather and an English mother with Irish connections. She spent time in Spain where her writer father moved, but has farming from both sides.

Born in 1949, Giana says that austerity is what she is used to and Tom as well. A family of cooks they have found themselves with useful skills for austerity.

“There’s always a joke in this family that Tom’s wonderful old father, during the Emergency as he called it, he would only go to town for salt and matches,” jokes Giana, who still holds on to granny’s button box.

Gubbeen is a traditional mixed farm. The cycle starts with the land, which is Tom; and then the herd, which is also Tom. The milk comes into the dairy to make cheese. The whey is a by-product — not a waste product — and it goes to the animals in varying forms and dilutions.

Daughter Clovisse feeds the family with her vegetable production. UK trained with her godfather, the gardener on one of the Rothschilds’ formal gardens, and at Riverford organic garden in Totnes.

She has just re-built the polytunnels following two successive floods.

“The piggery turns into Fingal’s main resource; and Clovisse’s manures, quite a lot of that comes from the farm as well. So it’s all interconnected as it always was,” Giana explains.

The geese, she says, were Tom’s grandmother’s — perhaps not an unbroken line, but it feels that way. There are always six to eight geese, along with about eight American bronze turkeys and rare hen breeds.

The pigs are the specialised work of son, Fingal, and farm manager, Andrew Brennan. Tom and Fingal designed straw-filled pens for the weanlings, and the sows will go out if the fine weather returns.


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