During the late 1970’s a few enterprising dairy farmers commenced making farmhouse cheese. For at least a quarter of a century before this, cheesemaking in Ireland had been exclusively confined to large scale factory production mainly concentrating on cheddar production and mainly owned by the dairy cooperatives. One exception to this was a small-scale production operated by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mosy at Lough Glynn in Co. Roscommon. However, even they had ceased producing cheese by the late 1970’s.
By 1983 there was a small number of farmers successfully producing a range of cheeses. The National Dairy Council, which had responsibility for promotion of dairy produce in Ireland, realised the potential of farmhouse cheese production and facilitated the formation of the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association in 1983 and helped its development in the earlier years.
Among those initial founding members were the following all of whom continue to produce cheese to this day:
- The Steele family who produce Milleens.
- The Willems family who produce Coolea.
- Jeffa Gill who produces Durrus.
- The Berridge family who produce Carrigbyrne.
- The Ferguson family who produce Gubbeen.
- The Brodie family who produce Boilie.
- The Maher family who produce Cooleeney.
- Bill Hogan and Sean Ferry who produce Gabriel and Desmond.
Cheeses & other founding members have either subsequently ceased production or sold on their businesses.
Initially CAIS was concerned with education of its members and the art of cheese-making, hygiene and developing suitable premises in cooperation with the Dairy Science Dept of University College Cork and also with The Agricultural Institute (now Teagasc) at Moorepark. Courses and seminars were laid on to promote these aims and the Irish Export Board (Coras Tractala) organised education visits abroad and this continued for a number of years.
A further boost to aspiring cheese-makers was the establishment of farmhouse cheese competitions. The initial credit for this must go to Clones Agricultural Show and this was quickly augmented and then superseded by the Royal Dublin Society who worked with CAIS and actively promoted cheese competitions bringing in international judges to evaluate the increasing number of farmhouse cheeses being made.
Following the establishment of CAIS, a similar organisation, the Specialist Cheese Makers Association, was founded in the U.K. It set up the British Cheese Awards and now the Irish cheeses are evaluated in this annual competition as well as other international competitions.
Initially members of Cais were concerned that farmhouse cheese should meet the following criteria:
1. Milk from one source or a limited number of local sources
2. Hand made
3. Small scale production
4. Only raw milk used
The above criteria are still aspired to however raw milk cheese is now promoted as a special category.
A range of bodies have helped the development of the farmhouse cheese industry and CAIS has actively liaised with them. The Dept. of Agriculture has responsibility for inspecting the production premises, and managing direct sales milk quotas which are vital for many small scale farmers who wish to expand in farmhouse cheese production, it also has to deal with animal disease outbreaks. Over the years CAIS has developed a constructive and positive relationship with them.
Bord Bia (The Irish Food Board) has taken over from Coras Trachtala and has done much work in creating awareness of Irish Farmhouse Cheese both at home, and abroad.
FAS have helped with training courses. Local groups, and Enterprise Ireland have helped the industry a lot but tend to work with individual companies.
Marketing of farmhouse cheese became a concern of CAIS once the amount of cheese being produced increased. Most producers can facilitate the home market but this was helped particularly in the early stages by private wholesalers distributors and Neals Yard Dairy in England, who were all established around the same time as the early stages of the farmhouse cheese industry. Exporting cheese posed more difficulties and at one stage CAIS set up a marketing company with the aid of a grant from the America/Ireland fund. As time moved on with the development of free trade within the E.E.C the need for this was not as great and it was discontinued. CAIS itself still actively encourages overseas promotions often taking stands at many of the international trade shows and is often helped by An Bord Bia.
CAIS has always been interested in the maintenance of quality and established its own code of practice and has constant contact with the food safety association of Ireland with a view to maintaining high standards both with established cheese-makers and new comers to the industry. Many of the established production units are now moving forward with production being handed on to the next generation. Some productions have ceased over a period of time with other new enterprises entering the market.