Milleens: How Irish Cheese Got Its Groove Back

Once upon a time, there was a new cheese on the block: no ordinary cheese, but one which would revolutionise Irish dairy and, to some degree, the entire Irish artisan food scene. Welcome to Cáis 101, the story of how Irish farmhouse cheese made a comeback to rival David Bowie‘s. (Cáis, pronounced “cawsh” is the Irish word for “cheese.” There you go. Don’t say I never teach you anything.) This is the story of Milleens, and of the fearless and determined woman who made magic happen on her small West Cork farm. This is no fairytale: it’s a dairytale. (It’s actually a little pathetic how happy that pun just made me.)

Thanks to our high rainfall levels and lush green pastures, we in Ireland have a long tradition of dairying, and there are mentions of cheesemaking here in sources dating all the way back to the eighth century. Sadly, the practice fell into a grave decline during the 16th and 17th centuries due to several reasons, not least of which were the cultural oppression that came with British occupation and, later, the widespread industrialisation of food and a new focus on large-scale production. Traditional cheesemaking was just one of the many areas of Gaelic tradition that disappeared, and just forty years ago Ireland did not have a living tradition of farmhouse cheesemaking. We had lost something ancient and special, a tangible part of our heritage. We had lost something delicious.

This remained the case until 1978, when a remarkable woman named Veronica Steele bought a cow (“Her name was Brisket and she only had one horn,” as her website tells us – aaand now I want a cow named Brisket) and resolutely began to make her own farmstead cheese. She christened her new baby Milleens, singlehandedly reintroducing the farmhouse style of cheesemaking to Ireland and kickstarting a whole new era of small-scale cheese production. No one else in the country was doing this at the time, but Steele was firm in her convictions: she knew what she wanted, and she was going to get it done. (You might say she had nerves of STEELE. Heh heh heh.)

“As an Irish woman I had been taught that the citizens of the republic owned the country. All of its institutions had no other purpose than to serve me. The public servants were at my disposal.” Whenever she felt in need of advice, Steele didn’t hesitate to march into the Dairy Products Research Centre, or the Dairy Science faculty in the University College of Cork, and hunt down the information she needed. Steele used these facilities to educate herself about the cheesemaking process from a scientific perspective. You can read extracts from her then-diaries on the Milleens facebook page, and some of them are frickin’ adorable, charting everyday triumphs and too-cute mishaps: “Monday 12th June cheddar, larded and waxed, fell and wax broke!” “Sunday 25th June cheddar, hand pulled, stolen by dog!” I thought it was bad that time my golden retriever actually ate my English homework.

After some experimentation with hard cheeses, Steele tried her hand at a softer product; once she’d cracked it, her Milleens began to sell almost immediately. “As soon as I sold my first cheese I just knew, Oh my god, this can be done outside of France!” Milleens would forge a path for the wealth of artisan cheeses that would follow over the next thirty years, a signature style in which our Irish farmhouse cheeses are unique expressions of their locality, displaying a strong connection to the land our cows graze on. Steele was responsible for inspiring and educating a whole new generation of artisan cheesemakers, and Irish farmhouse cheeses have since earned a worldwide reputation for excellence.

Today, Milleens is made by Veronica’s son, Quinlan. In 2003, Steele went to Dublin to nurse her ill mother and sister. “I just walked away,” she told me, “and when I came back I’d lost my job!” Her son Quinlan had taken over the family business, and Steele hasn’t made cheese since. The family business, however, has continued to thrive under Quinlan’s careful management, and Milleens remains an unwavering feature on the Irish artisan food scene.

This is an inspirational story but, even more importantly, Milleens is a damn fine cheese, a full-fat, washed-rind, semi-soft cows milk beauty. I asked Veronica to describe it, and her answers were suggestive of the unpredictable nature of many Irish cheeses; “It has a wild character,” she said, “and yet it’s always Milleens.” She told she generally just hopes that it behaves itself, although “sometimes the wilder the better – just like people!” Milleens celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2008, making it Ireland’s longest established farmhouse cheese, and has been the winner of many an award and the focus of many an accolade during that time.

Milleens comes in three forms: the standard wheel is 1.25kg, while there’s a smaller 200g version known as a “Dote.” The third is the relatively-new “O”, a 1.5kg wheel with a circle cut out of the centre to allow the cheese to mature faster. The rind is a lovely peach-colour and sticky to the touch, with a crystalline crunch in the mouth, and the pale golden paste becomes oozy and unctious as it ages. Milleens smells heady and rich, full of farmyard, mushrooms and fragrant grasses, while the flavour of the cheese is deep and earthy but vaguely sweet, with whispers of cream and cowshed. It’s a weird egg, a unique representation of the pastures of West Cork. There are plenty of excellent washed-rind cheeses out there, but Milleens is truly one-of-a-kind.

Milleens is best nibbled at room temperature, but it’s also an excellent cheese to cook with, as it melts easily and doesn’t burn. There are a couple of recipe suggestions on the website and, now that I’ve seen them, I am definitely going to try Milleens mashed potato, because it is a truth universally acknowledged that cheese and potatoes are the best foods in the world. (If Jane Austen had started Pride and Prejudice with those words, it would’ve been a very different novel altogether.) I recommend you get your hands on some and do the same.

Have you ever tried Milleens? Do you have a great dairytale of your own, or any thoughts on washed rind cheeses or insanely determined women? Drop me a line below!

[Featured image and image 3 property of Jocelyn Doyle; image 2 featured via Shutterstock]