From a ham pot to 70 tons of cheese

As she approaches her 70th birthday this year, Chris Dunne chats to Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen Farmhouse Products in West Cork about moving to Ireland, the hugely successful family business and her recent lifetime achievement award.
From a ham pot to 70 tons of cheese

THE FAMILY: Left to right, back row, Ciara, Fingal’s wife. Tom and Giana and Andrew, Clovisse’s partner. Front row, son, Fingal and his eldest son Olan on table.

IT wasn’t the broad shoulders of the imposing Mount Gabriel or the beauty of the wild Atlantic ocean that attracted Giana Ferguson to the south-western tip of Ireland — Goibín.

“No. I fell in love with Tom instantly,” says Giana, who comes from an Anglo-Hungarian family and was brought up in London.

“Tom was incredibly handsome. It doesn’t seem that long ago.”

Earlier this year, Giana, her husband, Tom, and their two children, Fingal and Clovisse, were honoured by the Irish Food Writer’s Guild with a Lifetime Achievement Award, recognising the Ferguson family of Gubbeen Farmhouse, as “one of the ‘finest examples Ireland has of the contribution that can be made to a national food culture by a few dedicated individuals”.

Giana boasts two other Lifetime Awards.

“My son Fingal, and my daughter Clovisse, are my lifetime achievements,” she says.

Giana’s nomadic life took a turn when she rode into town, the fishing village of Schull, accompanied by her Kerry collie and a tent.

“I came to visit pals in Ballydehob,” says Giana. “It was the early ’70s. My uncle, a writer, lived in Inishbeg. He gave me the West Cork bug. When I arrived, I felt like I had come home. In village life, you are never invisible. I had to eat, so I got a job in Gabe’s, the local village pub.”

She served a pint to William Ferguson and when she met his son, Tom, across the bar counter she was instantly smitten.

“He was so good-looking, I thought, he is trouble!” says Giana. “But Tom was a genuine gentleman. We got chatting and he asked me if I’d like to see the farm.

“It was a chance meeting really. We lived together for two years and when we got married in 1978, we had a big party in my home village.”

Fate and Karma played a part in the perfect match.

“I believe in fate,” says Giana.

And she believed in rolling up her sleeves and getting stuck in. But she didn’t come from farming stock?

“I come from a family of writers,” says Giana. “I lived with my grandfather for a time, Sir Harry Luke, who instilled in me his love of food. When my father lived in the Andalusian mountains, I understood more that from the land comes food. We made fresh cheese from goat’s milk every day. We added a drop of lemon and laid it by a sunny window.”

The Gubbeen farmhouse kitchen provided a very different venue for the birth of Gubbeen cheese.

“I started making cheese in a ham-pot on the side of the Aga,” says Giana, who starts work every day at 6am.

“Then I graduated out to the utility room making the earliest Gubbeen cheeses. It is a very different environment now,” adds Giana, showing me around the clinical production room that produces more than 70 tons of semi-soft rind-washed cheese a year.

“The climate and pastures were ripe for cheese,” she says,

Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen Farmhouse, Co. Cork picking up the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. 
Giana Ferguson of Gubbeen Farmhouse, Co. Cork picking up the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award. 

She had expertise in her corner from the beginning.

“I worked alongside my father-in- law, William. When I decided to convert the lambing shed into a tiny dairy, Tom’s father, the kindest, gentlest, of men, was right beside me, working with me. Whenever I came up with new ideas, William always agreed to help me. He didn’t say ‘why?’. He said, ‘how?’”

Did Giana ever feel like a ‘blow in’?

“The farming community is very inclusive and supportive,” she says. “The families are very connected. I was touched by village life. Our neighbours are wonderful. The community affected our kids positively. I always felt that my back was covered.”

Soon Giana, a creative and worldly woman, was one of a handful of trail-blazers selling cheese made on their Irish farms. The 250 acre Ferguson traditional farm was fertile ground for poultry, pigs, and cows; a mix of Friesian, Jersey and Kerry cows. The rich soil yielded luscious vegetables and silky salad leaves, spawning a thriving garden market business ripe for Clovisse Ferguson.

“Clovisse was always in the garden, digging her grubby little fingers in the ground from when she was very small,” says Giana.

“She is the cook who feeds the family and the guests, as well as supplying local chefs with fresh salads, herbs and vegetables.”

Clovisse has created her own biodynamic garden in a terraced acre housing four tunnels. The ducks, geese and hens roam, slow-moving, unaware of the hive of industry beneath their feet.

“The herbs Clovisse grows provide key flavours for Fingal’s smoked meats,” says Giana.

The pigs born on the farm, grazing on the summer pasture all summer long, fattening in their straw filled-pens, prompted Fingal Ferguson to build his own smoke-house and start his own charcuterie business.

Fingal produces his own salamis, chorizo, hams, and bacon.

“The kids saw Tom and me enjoying our work and having fun with it,” says Giana. “They knew how to go about things as they grew up. There was no mystery.”

The land provides a food chain for the family businesses that produces more than 50 food products, employing 20 people.

During my visit, on a bank holiday, there is a zen-like atmosphere in the leafy lane alongside the majestic Georgian Ferguson home.

“There is usually a buzz of business,” says Giana.

Fingal is chopping and slicing in the smokehouse where rows and rows of salamis and hams abide.

“The milk from the dairy herd makes the cheese. That makes the whey that is fed to Fingal’s pigs. The meat is then cured and flavoured with the herbs from Clovisse’s biodynamic garden.”

Giana knew she had found home at Gubbeen Farmhouse. Approaching her 70th birthday this year, she is well happy.

“The legacy is here for my four grandsons to carry on,” she says. “A farmhouse and a farm family made a lot of sense for me. I loved it the minute I met it.”

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