With cheese, please

GOD bless the cheesemakers.

Nowadays there is almost an Irish farmhouse cheese for every letter of the alphabet, over 60 in all and probably a few others I don't know about.

The lovely Veronica Steele, who with her husband Norman makes the now legendary Milleens cheese on their farm near Allihies on the Beara Peninsula, is considered to be the matriarch of the farmhouse cheese industry.

Veronica started to experiment in her kitchen in 1976 when she had surplus milk from her three cows, a Kerry and two Friesians. The end result was the feisty Milleens.

The cheesemaking has long since moved out of her kitchen into her Palais de Fromage. The original cheese was about nine inches in diameter with a gorgeous washed rind. About eight years later, Veronica started to make smaller four-inch cheeses, which are now known as Milleens dotes.

Veronica shared her understanding of the potential of Irish farmhouse cheese as an industry, with other cheesemaking icons like Giana Ferguson, Jeffa Gill, Mary Burns, Olivia Goodwillie, Louis and Jane Grubb, Paddy Berridge and Anne Brodie. She recognised the need for education and organisation, and was instrumental in setting up CáIS, the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association.

Since those pioneering days a whole generation of cheesemakers have learned their craft and accumulated a wealth of knowledge on artisan cheese production. Their cheeses are enjoyed by lovers of good food both at home and abroad. Visiting travel and food writers seek out the cheeses and visit the farms, charmed by the passionate producers they encounter.

Many of the cheesemakers have become expert on the science of their product and have to contend with ever more stringent regulations, frequently out of proportion to the risk involved.

The Irish Farmhouse Cheese Recipes book, edited by Jane Russell and supported by Bórd Bia, was officially launched by Bórd Bia at the Eurotoques Conference 2004, last Sunday at the Brooklodge Hotel, McReddin village, Wicklow, and is on sale nationwide for 1. The pocket-size recipe book contains recipes from all over Ireland and includes tips for cooking and storing cheese.

Buying cheese: Just buy the quantity of cheese you need for immediate consumption, or what can be consumed within one or two days.

Fridges basically "hold" cheese but they don't improve it in any way.

Storing cheese: For perfection, cheese should be stored in a cool larder or cupboard, but very fresh soft cheese should always be stored in the fridge. Hard or semi-hard cheeses need high humidity or they will dry out. Wrap them individually in clean damp tea towels and keep an eye on them if they are to be stored for more than a few days. All other cheese should also be wrapped individually in its own wrapping or in greaseproof paper or tin foil. Cooleeney or Carrigbyrne Camembert or large Brie type cheeses, should be stored in their wooden boxes. Cling film is not good for wrapping cheese.

Blue cheese, particularly those without a thin rind, eg Cashel Blue, Bellingham Blue, Crozier Blue and Roquefort, should be wrapped closely in silver or gold foil otherwise the blue mould (penicillium roquefortii) which is very prolific will travel into other cheeses and make them blue also. Do not keep any cheese in a warm kitchen for long soft cheese tends to liquefy and harder cheese sweat and become oily.

It is better not to freeze cheese unless it is a stop gap measure.

Accompaniments to cheese: Celery, grapes, lettuce, tomato roses, and various other garnishes are often served with cheese. All one really needs to serve with cheese in perfect condition is fresh, crusty, homemade white bread or simple cheese biscuits. A recent trend particularly in Australia and the US, where there is a new evolving farmstead cheese industry is to serve a cheese course.

A cheese plate with complementary nuts, dried fruit, relishes, perhaps a little salad and some crackers or flavoured breads.

Nuts: fresh walnuts, pecans, almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia or brazil nuts. Dried fruit: plump dried Turkish figs, dried peaches or pears. Relishes: beetroot, ginger, tomato relish jalapeno, pimento. Membrillo or quince cheese, delicious with Manchego or soft goat cheese. Honey is good with blue cheese.

Homemade Crackers

Makes 20-25 biscuits

225g (8oz) plain white flour

½ tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

25g (1oz) butter

1 tbsp cream

about 5 tbsp water

Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas 2.

Put the flour, salt and baking powder into a bowl. Rub in the butter and moisten with the cream and enough water to make a firm dough. Roll out very thinly to 2mm (1/16 in). Prick with a fork. Cut into squares with a pastry wheel or sharp knife. Bake for 30 minutes until lightly browned and quite crisp. Cool on a wire rack. Serve with cheese.

Coolea and leek fritters

Serves 8

400g/14oz leek, very thinly sliced

25g/1oz butter

200g/7oz flour

2 free range eggs

250ml/9fl oz milk

200g/7oz mature Coolea farmhouse cheese, freshly grated (or other semi-hard cheese)

salt and freshly ground pepper

1 fresh red chilli pepper, deseeded and finely chopped

freshly grated nutmeg

Tomato dip:

8 tomatoes, peeled, deseeded and finely chopped

4 tblsp fresh basil leaves, chopped, or 30ml/2 tblsp pesto sauce

150ml extra virgin olive oil

salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt the butter, add the thinly sliced leeks, cover and sweat on a gentle heat until soft, but not coloured (approx 5 minutes). Cool for 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the tomato dip by putting the tomatoes, basil or pesto and oil in a bowl and mixing thoroughly. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Then sieve the flour into a bowl, make a well in the centre, add in the eggs and break up with a whisk. Add the milk gradually, whisking all the time in a circular movement from the centre to the outside of the bowl. Add the leeks, when cool, and the grated cheese and red chilli pepper. Season with salt, freshly ground pepper and nutmeg to taste. Heat a frying pan, preferably non-stick, on a medium heat.

Drop a tablespoon of the batter on to the pan, allow to cook until golden on one side, flip over onto the other and cook for a moment or two more.

Taste and correct the seasoning if necessary.

Serve hot with the tomato dip.

Durrus and Potato Melt

Serves 4

900g/2lb waxy potatoes, cubed

1 small Durrus or 400g/14oz portion, rind removed, cubed

2 onions, finely chopped

200g/7oz bacon rashers, cut into small pieces

250g/9oz tub crème fraiche

black pepper and salt

Steam or parboil the potatoes until just soft. Gently cook the onions and bacon in a covered pan. Put the potatoes, onions, bacon and cheese in a buttered shallow oven dish. Add salt and pepper and pour on the crème fraiche, mixing gently. Bake at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 15-20 minutes.

Stir gently after 10 minutes. Serve with a green salad and a glass of red wine.

O'Connell's Warm Salad of Gubbeen Cheese and Fingal Ferguson's Gubbeen Bacon

Courtesy of Rory O'Connell of Ballymaloe House

Serves 6

15ml/1 tbsp olive oil

350g/12oz streaky Gubbeen bacon or other streaky bacon

6 handfuls of mixed green leaves

55g/2oz Gubbeen or similar cheese, diced

Dressing:

45ml/3 tbsp sunflower oil

45ml/3 tbsp olive oil

5ml/1 tsp whole grain mustard

30ml/2 tbsp cider vinegar

salt, pepper and sugar

Heat a frying pan and add a little olive oil. When it is smoking, add the lardoons of bacon and fry until crisp. While the bacon is cooking, put all the ingredients for the dressing in a bowl and whisk with a fork.

Toss the leaves in the dressing and divide between six hot plates. The leaves should be just glistening with the dressing. Sprinkle the cubes of cheese around the leaves and finally the bacon straight from the pan.

Serve immediately.

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