One recent evening, towards the tail end of his annual Christmas sojourn in West Cork, The Menu purchased a little ‘dote’ of his favourite of all cheeses, Milleens, to enjoy by the fire with a fine vino, still intent on staving off the return to reality for another few days.
But the following morning reality came knocking loudly on the door with the very sad news of the death, in Castletownbere, on January 4, of Veronica Steele, creator of the aforementioned internationally renowned, multiple award-winning Irish farmhouse cheese.
For such a small country, we now have a national ‘cheeseboard’ of Irish farmhouse cheeses fit to hold its own with any of the great cheese-producing nations of the world but without Veronica Steele and her original experimentation in the 1970s with the excess milk of a cow called Brisket, it is entirely possible this modern cheese revolution would never have come to pass for such a venture was entirely at odds with then-State agricultural policy and, furthermore, a domestic market was almost non-existent for such a cheese, a soft, washed-rind cheese sporting a high, pungent aroma, extremely challenging for those only used to the bland, sweaty, plastic-wrapped offerings, the fruits of the rapidly industrialising national dairy sector.
Several years ago, food writer John McKenna justly referred to Veronica’s creation of Milleens as the ‘Big Bang’ of the modern Irish small food producer movement for not only did Veronica produce such a world-class cheese while tucked away in the wilds of Beara, but she also then set about educating her ‘sister’ cheesemakers, beginning with Jeffa Gill, of Durrus Cheese.
Furthermore, she established relationships with dairy scientists in Teagasc and the Dairy Science department in UCC, tapping into their knowledge, but, shrewdly, also ensuring valuable allies and intellectual capital for the future.
She was a founder-member of Cáis, the organisation of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers, and when she was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at their inaugural Irish Cheese Awards, in 2015, the ovation was an extraordinary and emotional outpouring of acknowledgement from her fellows.
But she was infinitely more than the sum of her admittedly sterling professional achievements, fiercely intelligent with a rapier wit yet equally warm, friendly and endlessly interested in people and ideas and impossibly generous of spirit even to those such as The Menu who only knew her fleetingly.
When she was diagnosed with the rare and greatly debilitating illness that eventually took her, she faced it with a feisty courage that was all her own.
Thirty-odd years ago, a teenage Menu’s ramblings saw him wind up one afternoon in Steele’s yard where a highly amused Veronica took great delight in his first shocked sampling of Milleens, utterly alien to such an unschooled palate, The Menu baulking at the whiff alone.
But taste he did, forever altering his perception of food, sending him off down a road he is still travelling today.
Decades later, he met her again at a food festival, she majestically coutured in tribal dress, bearing a tall wooden staff, having recently returned from teaching local woman in Ethiopia to make cheese despite her illness already being someway advanced.
The Menu was near tongue-tied but Veronica was having none of his reverential guff and he passed a very pleasant few hours in her company. Two years later, he invited her to another food event in West Cork, reasoning she would be unfit to attend but hoping the invitation alone would go some way to illustrating his enormous respect.
To his astonishment, she not only turned up though obviously incapacitated but went on to play a blinder on the night. It is a treasured memory.
The Menu has lost one of his great heroes but that is nothing to the loss being endured by her husband, Norman, and children, Susan, Jenny, Kate and Quinlan, and the extended family and The Menu extends his deepest condolences. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann.
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