THE cockerel is ebullient as Mike Parle and Darcie Mayland settle in to relate their tale of reinvention.
Ned, their son, rests only momentarily on Darcie’s knee before an adventure beckons and he rushes away to play. The sun is shining, the setting a pastoral idyll redolent with suggestions that a self-sufficient life is one of romance, freedom, and escapism.
Mike and Darcie are the owners and founders of The Lost Valley Dairy and Creamery in Inchigeelagh. The farm is home to four dairy cows, a small number of beef cattle, pigs, chickens, bees and occasionally geese. There is lush pasture, rocky forage, and plots where vegetables are grown year-round.
As the name suggests, the farm is nestled in a valley in between Cork’s three largest mountains — a sort of Alpine region lending itself naturally to a different mode, a different speed, of farming.
Most of what is produced on the farm is destined for their own table, but what sustains this way of life is the creamery and the two types of raw milk cheeses Mike forges with little more than milk and time.
Crafted by hand and slowly matured, what makes Carraignamuc and Rí na Mumhan cheeses different to other farmhouse cheese is these are made using its own raw milk starter culture.
Mike, born in Birmingham with an intriguing former life as an opera singer, has Irish roots in Waterford and East Cork. Darcie, from Kent, enjoyed a successful career as a restaurant manager in London, and after moving to Ireland in 2017, she managed Kevin Ahern’s Sage restaurant in Midleton.
Neither have a professional farming background but share a lifelong passion for great food and a desire to understand where it comes from and what it takes to produce it.
“I guess we come at farming from an interest of eating and producing food,” says Mike.
“My family always liked cooking and there was always a lot of homemade food. My dad’s family is from Ireland, and when I was young, we used to come over to East Cork where my dad’s mother was from, and the family there are farming. Back in the UK, I did a lot of gardening and kept chickens.
“I’ve always been interested in home-produced food.
"A few times I’d buy a whole pig from a butcher, take it home, and try different sorts of curing, making sausages and bacon. That aspect of food production — starting with the produce of the land and ending up with it on your table — is what interests me.”
The Parles moved to Ireland in 2017 when their son, Ned, was just a toddler, keen to find a home with a plot of land big enough to become ever more self-sufficient.
“Mike had a half-acre before growing a lot of his own veg, and kept chickens, but always knew he wanted more,” says Darcie.
“While we were in East Cork with one acre, we realised we needed more than that still, so we started looking around for houses with about ten acres and kept coming back to this farm in Inchigeelagh because it was so magical.”
Originally a working hill farm, the eight-acres includes grazing land in the valley and a rocky hill.
“Once our calves are weaned, we rear them up the hill and get some slow grown beef for us to eat,” says Mike.
There are also four Dairy Shorthorn cows, named Gertrude, Glenda, Tilda, and Kate, that Mike milks by hand and from which he makes his raw milk cheeses.
“Cheesemaking was only a background idea to begin with,” says Mike.
“We had one, then two cows I was hand milking and started experimenting with making cheese — just for us really, maturing it in a cool room in the back of the house. I did that for about a year, and then in Spring, 2020, we got started and I did everything in a desperate rush! I was building a cheesemaking facility at the same time as milking the cows and developing the recipe. It’s a tricky way to make cheese — to make it with raw milk and a natural starter and maturing it with a natural rind. You’re relying on the biome of yourself, the animals, and the area to provide the bacteria to sour the milk and ripening bacteria.”
Most cheeses produced in Ireland are made with pasteurised milk — a heat-treating process that kills off all bacteria, good and bad. To make cheese using pasteurised milk, the cheesemaker must add lab strains of freeze-dried cultures, resulting in a reliable system of cheese production, but, says Mike, it doesn’t necessarily produce a cheese that is unique to the area.
“Milk is something that changes all the time: the fat and protein content of milk varies greatly with the seasons, but what won’t vary so much is how well the milk starter is working. The traditional way of making cheese is to make a starter culture by souring your own milk, add to a vat of fresh milk and go about your cheese making. Saving some whey from the make of cheese is used to start the next batch of cheese. This could go on for generations, in the same way as a sourdough starter.
“The starter culture is the milk,” explains Darcie.
“The way that Mike makes cheese, the ingredients are simply milk, rennet and salt. We’re not using a starter culture made in a factory, we’re doubling down on the milk instead.”
Carraignamuc and Rí na Mumhan are the cheeses made at The Lost Valley Dairy and Creamery. Both use the same ingredients but utilise different maturation processes to produces two different tasting — and smelling — cheeses.
“Carraignamuc is named after the townland the farm is located. It was important to us to call the cheese after the townland because if it was made two miles down the road, it would taste different,” says Darcie.
“The recipe is based on a simple northern Italian Tomme-style cheese,” adds Mike.
“It’s not a fancy cheesemaker’s recipe, it’s a simple farmhouse recipe. Carraignamuc is matured with a natural rind. I rub the rind down for the first month or so, knocking back the mould to get quite a funky yeasty breakdown. After that, the cheeses are turned regularly, the rind starts to dry out and develops a natural mould.”
Rí na Mumhan — which translates as King of Munster — is based on a French Munster, so called because legend has it that Irish monks (from Munster) travelled to France and taught monks there to make a washed rind cheese.
In Mike’s case, Rí na Mumhan is born from not wasting the last pieces of curd from a make of Carraignamuc.
“Carraignamuc is a large cheese wheel but we make such small batches that I’d have some curds left, but not enough to make another wheel of Carraignamuc. So, I bought some little moulds and tried making a washed rind cheese,” explains Mike.
“I wash the Rí na Mumhan with a plain saltwater brine by hand every two or three days until it develops an orange colour outside and goes really smelly.
“It’s the same curds going in to make Rí na Mumhan as Carraignamuc, just matured in a different way to produce completely different cheeses. I’m addicted to eating it spread on toast with a little scratch of pepper!”
It took almost every penny Mike and Darcie had to develop a raw milk cheesemaking facility that satisfied the stringent food safety requirements, meaning that cheesemaking is now the main on-farm industry, supporting a sustainable lifestyle for them and their son. Growth and development are viewed through a different prism: one that takes account not solely of economic growth, but, more importantly, factoring in the human aspect.
“Conversations around sustainability have moved on to being about the human being.
"When we talk about having a life here, we talk about it being sustainable for Mike as a father,” says Darcie.
“We knew we had to start some kind of business, but how to have a life where we can both be present for our son’s childhood?
"That doesn’t mean we’re not working all the time, its more that we’re around. Ned’s got his own little cheesemaking coat in the lab room, colouring in while Mike’s cutting the curd, then they’ll come in and have a cup of tea and a piece of cake and go back out to clean up. That was really important in deciding what we were actually going to do as our business.”
Mike and Darcie have calculated what can be sustainably achieved on their eight acres, and with cheesemaking taking centre stage, and an unnegotiable tenet of doing everything at minimum chemical free, there is a natural ceiling of capacity which inevitably dictates their growth.
“This year, we’re milking three cows, within two years there will be five milking cows and that’s as big as we can go on our farm.
"From those five cows we can produce around three and a half tonnes of cheese.
“Selling the majority direct to customers means we can support ourselves. So, we know how big we can get, we know what is do-able, and we know we can live off that as a family.”
“I don’t have to assume that we must get bigger,” says Mike.
“If all I wanted was to make lots of productivity gains, there are gadgets and computerised systems that would enable me to sit in bed with a laptop and make cheese! But that’s not what I want to do.”
In many ways, The Lost Valley Dairy and Creamery is looking back to find a more satisfying and resonant way of living for the future. In Darcie’s own words, theirs is not a huge enterprise — investment companies will not be banging down their door, and that’s OK. Time is their valuable commodity.
Where to buy: Online www.thelostvalleydairy.com and Markets: Bantry (Friday) and Skibbereen (Saturday).