Curds and whey: Art of making sustainable cheese

Rather than flying in cheese from abroad, a couple with a passion for local produce opted instead for a spot of import substitution at their Co Cork dairy, writes Roz Crowley.

Curds and whey: Art of making sustainable cheese

Rather than flying in cheese from abroad, a couple with a passion for local produce opted instead for a spot of import substitution at their Co Cork dairy, writes Roz Crowley.

Irish mozzarella? Irish blue cheese? Irish cheddar? Irish halloumi? What’s going on? It’s called import substitution and Irish consumers are the better for it.

As sustainability goes, it’s one decent step towards avoiding/reducing air miles while providing local employment. Home-grown isn’t always easy to achieve.

Energetic Irish winemakers have been trying to grow grapes in Ireland for years, but unless global warming lessens our rainfall, it’s hard to believe they can produce consistently.

However, we can support local a short journey away and drink sparkling wine made by Limerick man Dermot Sugrue at Wiston vineyards in Sussex (Bradleys North Main St, Cork, stock it).

Responsible for award-winning sparklers including his own labels, Sugrue is doing his bit to reduce airmiles.

Back in Co Cork, a partnership of art and design graduate Jenny-Rose Clarke and Oxford-born Toby Simmonds is a relaxed one. Spotting and taking opportunities, this quietly dynamic couple got together when still teenagers.

At the age of 19 in 1993, Toby had a stall at Galway market and in George’s St Arcade, Dublin, where he met Jenny-Rose. Soon after that, he initiated Dublin’s Temple Bar market, before establishing a game-changer of a stall in Cork’s English Market, enlivening it and attracting customers to his colourful panoply of olives and continental treats.

Importing cheese was anathema to this couple, who have an intrinsic feel for sustainability and keeping waste to a minimum. “We didn’t like flying in fresh mozzarella from Italy every few days,” says Jenny-Rose. “It wasn’t practical, as soft cheeses don’t keep for long.”

To follow up on an idea of making his own, Toby worked in Italy with mozzarella producers, coming home with the battle scars of red hands and scorches, known to cheesemakers as tattoos.

The choice of dairy premises at Toonsbridge, near Macroom, was the result of Toby using a compass centred on Cork, drawing a circle of a 50km radius, and visiting all the dairies, for sale or not, within it.

The couple, by then with two daughters, had already bought a farm in the hills behind Toonsbridge, where they still live and where they bred Connemara ponies until the recession hit.

“The secret ingredient of good mozzarella is good water,” says Toby. The dairy had its own well, an ample source of water, said to be enough to service all of Macroom (it is also used for washing the olives).

In the old days they used water diviners to find suitable locations for dairies. We didn’t have to go that far

Litres of UV-filtered hot water are used for mozzarella. Curds are stirred while the water is poured over to firm it up. That requires huge strength and time, turning, stretching, and folding it patiently, until, feeling it by hand, the cheesemaker by instinct and experience decides when it’s time to remove armfuls of it from the huge vats, to put through a machine which pushes out the distinctive rounds into cold water.

Floating in brine, rotund, white orbs, glistening like live fish, are ready to be packed into bags containing brine.

On other days, depending on demand, different cheeses are made from sheep’s milk supplied by Italian vet and shepherd Vincenzo La Manna, who keeps 80 sheep for Toons Bridge Ricotta, Halloumi and Pecorino.

Toons Bridge now responds quickly to demand, and fresh cheese can be anywhere in Ireland within 24 hours of production.

The range has been developed further with creamy burrata and stracciatella, and hard cooking cheeses caciocavallo, scamorza, and most recently, influenced by an addition to the dairy team, Greek halloumi and katiki. Pecorino, cardo (which uses the stamens from cardoon flowers instead of animal rennet) and small batch seasonal cheeses are part of the portfolio.

The Italian hard cheeses are used as the main act in top restaurants offering meat-free alternative dishes.

A cheesemaker from Cork works alongside Polish, Croatian and Italian enthusiasts, using milk from a herd of 60 young water buffalo from Italy. They are kept on Michael Dorney’s dairy farm in Ballincollig, Co Cork, and have names and a different letter on their tags for every year, instead of clinical numbers.

The Toons Bridge/Real Olive team is a member of Bord Bia’s worthy, sustainable food initiative, Origin Green.

“This scheme prompted us to replace our lightbulbs to low energy altogether, rather than as they blew,” says Jenny-Rose. “It also underlined the importance of training our staff to reuse and recycle. At one stage Toby photographed items that were put in the bins instead of recycling and WhatsApped them to the team. That kept us all on our toes.”

They have always been conscious of keeping plastic to a minimum and are trialling tubs made from cornstarch.

“It’s difficult to get a good seal on them,” says Jenny-Rose.

Clear bags are not easy to replace. We’ve tried some made from vegetables, but they are cloudy and look dirty. We have a long way to go before we become fully sustainable, but we are certainly trying.

Especially in the last year, their customers have been bringing in tubs and bags for purchases. Leftover whey from the cheese goes to make butter (currently on a small scale), and a small experimental quantity of yoghurt is being made from buffalo, sheep and cows’ milk. They do their best to reuse too, importing most olives in large barrels, which are reused as planters and animal feeders.

Toons Bridge Dairy has developed into a destination for schools, with mainly seven to 11-year-olds learn about cheesemaking. A maturing room has rounds of cheese and distinctive pouches of caciocavallo and smoked scamorza hanging from racks.

The shop, open at weekends at the dairy, echoes the English Market sandwich stall offerings — salads and sandwiches, cakes and great coffee made with creamy Gloun Cross milk which arrives in reusable glass bottles. In Toons Bridge there is also pizza from an oven in a covered-in area. Celebrating 25 years in business, Toby and Jenny-Rose have shown the way in many aspects of business, generously sharing their methods and sustainability ethos.

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