An orchestra of delicious cheese

In part three of our series on Cork food producers, KATE RYAN catches up with the duo behind Ballinrostig Organic Cheese to talk ancestral influences, going organic and the environment
An orchestra of delicious cheese

AT THE HEART OF THE HOMESTEAD: Stephen Bender and Michele Cashman of Ballinrostig Organic Cheese.

I FIRST came across Michele Cashman and Stephen Bender behind a tiny stall at Ballymaloe LitFest, back in May 2017.

I was drawn to their stand emblazoned with ‘Ballinrostig Homestead’ out of a curiosity to know if there was a new kid on the cheese block. I tasted the cumin-studded, nettle flecked and plain Gouda style cheeses on offer, and walked away happy with my purchase of a slice of each — a great new cheese had graced Cork once more.

Stephen is the cheese maker and Michele is responsible for business operations sales, deliveries and everything else besides.

Their cheese is named after the pretty little village in which their homestead is situated, near Whitegate in East Cork, the same homestead being Michele’s family home. They took over in 2014 when her parents could no longer manage the house and a tasteful renovation included a small cheese making room.

“Pretty much straight away Stephen started making cheese,” says Michele.

Stephen, from Holland but more at home now in Ireland after 20-plus years, learned to make cheese watching his grandmother.

“She was born in 1897, and I remember playing in the cheese vat when I was seven years old,” says Stephen.

“As I got older I started to show a bit of interest in cheese making, but by then my grandmother had given it up because she was getting elderly.

“She used to make Edam, laying out trays of rich evening milk and allowing it to cream up overnight. In the morning, she would take off the cream, put the milk in the cheese vat and used the cream to make butter. There was so much culture in her place that she didn’t need to add anything else! Instead she often used whey from the previous cheese making as her starter culture.

“The cheese was just OK, we always thought it wasn’t rich enough because we liked really creamy cheese. We were from south Holland where there are a lot of Gouda cheese makers and the Edam cheese is made by north Hollanders, and for some reason she made that type of cheese.

“Using a lower fat milk to make a cheese changes the protein to fat ratio, and it is the fat content that creates the taste and the mouthfeel of a creamy cheese. So once you take a good bit of fat out you get a different ratio and mouth feel so it becomes a bit more rubbery and it has to be left longer to mature and the salt doesn’t permeate so well.”

That Stephen didn’t follow in his grandmothers’ frugal attitude to cheese making is a boon to us; any gap in knowledge was filled by reading, talking and listening to other cheese makers and honing the technical craft of cheese making at large production facilities in Holland.

“I worked on a goat farm for most of the year, but goats milk for only 260 days of the year and are dry for 100. In that interim period I signed up for working as farm relief for cheese makers. I would deal with pretty large quantities of cheese making and could not mess it up, so you really got to know the process and techniques of cheese making really well!”

There are three main ingredients in cheese: milk, culture and rennet, the most important being milk. The quality of it, freshness and high fat content all are important to the final flavour of the finished cheese.

Stephen and Michele had always sourced their milk locally, but in early 2018 decided to become a fully organic cheese maker. This of course required the milk to be of organic origin too.

“We work with two local farms: Dan & Ann Ahern, who supply us with organic Jersey milk, and Bat Sheehan, who has an organic herd of Friesian/Norwegian Reds. The milk is rich and creamy and has made our cheese extra flavoursome and rich.”

Stephen and Michele have a mini-milk tanker that they drive to collect 500 litres of raw milk direct from the dairy — just enough to make a batch of ten 5kg cheese rounds. Stephen loads the milk into the cheese vat and as it turns is gently heated pasteurising the milk. Doing this themselves is possible because they are sourcing a raw organic milk from a nearby source.

Their plain Gouda, made with Jersey milk, is a deep buttery colour with a well-rounded mouth feel; sweet with a finishing lactic acidity that is deeply satisfying. For sure, the quality of the milk being used is singing through to the finished product.

The beauty of this move to organic milk is not just reflected in the flavour of the cheese, but also in the wider community, for both Dan and Ann Ahern and Ballinrostig trade weekly at Midleton Market.

What’s more, the left over whey from cheese making is supplied to Noreen and Martin Conroy’s Woodside Farm once a week who also trade at Midleton Market with their rare breed, free range pork product. From farm to fork via an organic dairy, organic cheesemaker and free range pig farm — that’s the kind of sustainable co-operative farming and growing model that makes sense and can benefit a wider community of people: not just the farmers and producers.

The full Ballinrostig range includes the Jersey Organic Gouda, aged for four months, using the Aherns milk; and cumin, red pepper and nettle flavoured cheeses using Bat Sheehan’s milk. To my delight I also discover that they have an Applewood Smoked Jersey Gouda, a cream cheese flavoured with nettles and produce a small quantity of Halloumi and Feta, both fresh and smoked, “much of which is supplied to Gideon who runs a kebab stall at Midleton Market,” says Michele. Another example of small producers working together.

In true understated Ballinrostig fashion, the launch of their Organic Jersey Gouda took place from their market stall in Midleton in July this year. The only hint of showbiz was a congratulatory speech from Darina Allen.

Now their cheeses are sold at their stall in Midleton, Mahon, and the Coal Quay markets as well as supplying a handful of restaurants and a small but growing number of speciality food shops around the city and county.

When I ask about any current ambitions for growing the retail sector, there is ambivalence. Michele said: “We would rather keep the operation small and the quality high right now. We love selling from our stalls at farmers’ markets because we get a chance to directly engage with our customers, to talk about the cheese and build real relationships.

“Packing is also something that we would struggle with when we think of expansion. We would prefer to sell our cheeses by the wheel or at most wrapped in paper. But not every shop will take a wheel, or may need the cheese portioned and wrapped in plastic.”

As avid GIYers with a keen eye on environmental issues, animal welfare and local food, mass scale food production is difficult to square against these ideals.

Outside the impressively compact cheese making plant is their cheese curing room where rows and rows of buttercup yellow Jersey Gouda rounds are maturing on pine shelves. Next door to that is a small smoker which they use to smoke small amounts of that same cheese, feta and halloumi using Applewood. It’s a perfectly formed set up that has grown naturally with them.

The past couple of years may “seem like a blur” to Michele, but despite the mania and long hours they are still completely in love with what they do.

“This is going to sound pretentious,” preambles Stephen, “but I like to think of myself as the conductor and the milk as the orchestra.”

And a sweet melody it is too.

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