Valerie O’Connor meets a man who isn’t kidding around with a cheese business on the Aran Islands.
Gabriel Faherty is putting Inis Mór Arainn, the largest of the three Aran islands, on the map as a food-producing region.
A ruddy, funny man, Gabriel is married to Orla and they have three feisty little ones.
However, he was being dragged away to work off the island as a deep-sea fisherman from Alaska to Chile for almost 20 years.
With long times away to make enough money to keep the family, something had to give.
Gabriel got the idea to get some goats to try developing an enterprise that involved working with the land.
“Goats are indigenous to the islands so the stuff that grows here suits them, they get to eat over 250 different types of wild grasses, and even thistles. There is no snow or frost here so they can outside all year round,” he says.
He started off with 25 kids and was bottle-feeding them while Orla was bottle-feeding their youngest son at the same time.
“The herd has now grown to 200 and the slow process of making his Aran Islands Goats Cheese is now well established after four years’ hard work.
“I’m a farmer, a cheese-maker, marketing manager, distributor and chief taster,” he says.
Looking around at the working environment, the goat farm has views out on the sea, on the coast road, a flat part of the island that in summer, has many tourists lolling past on their bikes. The goats go in and out and chow down on plenty of fresh hay.
“There are no air miles here. The milk goes straight to chilling and then rennet is added and time does it’s thing while the cheese process begins to do its thing, too,” he says.
The main product is small pearls of soft cheese, delicate and creamy, made only from the goat curds, it’s rolled into little balls by hand and packed in oil.
Some has seaweed added — dilisk, hand-harvested by Mairtín Concannon, his uncle by marriage, who lives just down the road.
Gabriel has now ventured into making more aged cheeses, which he has been supplying to Sheridan’s who can’t keep it in stock.
“I make a green hard cheese with sea lettuce, which develops little holes, air pockets in it created by the properties of the seaweed. The hard cheese I make with dilisk takes on a nutty flavour,” he says.
The flavour of the seaweed neutralises the strong goaty taste and vice verse so it’s a good pairing.
The Aran Islands Goat feta is my own favourite, but the Parmesaran (Aran!) is a new thing that Gabriel is delighted about.
“The goats’ diet is everything when it comes to the flavour of the cheese of course, and the animals eat so many different species of grass and wild herbs. This all goes into the milk”.
“The cheese has taken me over, I just love it. I had no idea that this was going to be the life for me”, he beams while literally rolling around in the hay with the goats whom he talks to in ‘goat language’.
Gabriel has swapped the wheel at the boat for the wheels of cheese.
Visitors to the island report a high point when it comes to seeing the cheese and especially the goats who are curious and lovable creatures, more than happy to nibble on your clothes, or, as I found, on your hair too.
If you want to taste the soft cheeses on a visit, you can get it in a salad from the now famous Tigh nan Phadaí, the busiest spot for a tasty bite near the tourist hot-spot Dun Aonghus.
Gabriel can be seen at every food festival, telling every single prospective customer all about the cheese, as if it was the first time.
He will hook up with other suppliers, pairing the cheese with a local honey, or a new biscuit or any type of alcohol that might be there to match.
Outside Ireland, this green place is seen as just that, lush and unspoilt —the Aran islands takes that to the next level in an unpolluted and pure environment.
The possibilities for Gabriel’s cheese are endless. He was recently given the accolade of Fáilte Ireland food tourism champion, something he’s still getting his head around.
“Four hundred food producers were nominated and 16 of us got the positions. It’s really amazing to be chosen to not only represent Ireland but also to be key in developing Ireland’s part in moving forward in food tourism.
For the next three years we will attend meetings and seminars in different countries to see how they do food tourism and to see what we can bring back here. We are off to Denmark soon which is going to be fantastic,” he says.
With Denmark being a big producer of blue cheese, (famously they now import a huge amount of Cashel Blue), no doubt exciting possibilities lie ahead. He might be back travelling away from the family, but this cheese producer’s feet couldn’t be more firmly on the ground.
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