Digging around in the back of the fridge for something to put in my lunch time sandwich I came across a small round of Millleen cheese that had somehow missed out on being eaten amongst the various food stuffs we brought back from Cork at Easter.
It was a couple of months past its best before date but that didn’t matter. It just meant my fingers carried with them a slightly more pungent smell with them after I had made up the sandwich than they might otherwise have done. It was good to catch a whiff every so often sat at my desk through the morning so I could look forward to lunch.
A few years ago I picked up via eBay a copy of The Observer Guide to British Cookery by Jane Grigson. It includes a memorable description of a trip to the farm where Milleen was, and is still, made on the Beara.
Thinking that Ireland was short of cheese, I brought one over from T’yn Grug for the Allens at Ballymaloe. They were politely grateful, but I need not have bothered. Their Sunday evening table was covered with Irish cheeses. Later in Dublin, in the cheese shop of the Powerscourt Townhouse market, the first thing I saw as I walked in was a row of them – cheese from Milleens; soft goats’ cheeses from Wendy and Brian Macdonald in Wicklow and so on.
We went to visit Veronica and Norman Steele on the north side of the Beara Peninsula at Milleens. Rhododendrons and thick greenery at first, pines and glimpses of water. At Dareen gardens, a coast road turns off right down past the cottage where the fish producing O’Connors live. A creek runs in at that point, a path goes down to their boat and in the distance their shellfish rafts rest on the sea; we thought of dinner to come at Kenmare, with their mussels, their oysters and, above all, their sea urchins.
On to Milleens. A flaming car in the middle of the road watched by the sad owner and his parents. No one in sight, village two miles away. Gradually people emerge from nowhere, ambling along, chatting, drawn to the smoke and flames. At last, we get by.
We struggle up the right stony muddied lane and we find two philosophers in Wellington boots, teacher and pupil, both young, turned herdsman and cheesemaker and not regretting it. Straight off the lane, you step up into the orderly, sweet – smelling cheese room, the dairy. Then into the living – room where cheeses were set out on a long table, with a long bench and a view over the sea, over the great inlet like some Galician ria that jags in to the town of Kenmare on this rough shredded fringe of Ireland.
The Steeles began in 1978 with one cow, three gallons of milk a day. Now they have twelve friesians, two kerries and fifty gallons of milk a day. They make two kinds of cheese, Beara which is a cooked curd cheese, a big yellowish cheese, and the flatter Milleens. They export all over the place, to Germany, America and England. With one helper, they have a business they can manage, a life they like – but they could sell ten times as much.
They are keen to spread the idea of Irish cheese. With the chairman, Patrick Berridge, they are amongst the most active members of the Irish Cheese Producers’ Association, which is now thirty strong. Veronica Steele has no craft secrets, but passes everything on that she can.
The bread for the sandwiches came courtesy of the bread circle and very good it was too!