Great Irish Cheese, Tea, and Bacon


Photo by Matt Biddulph/FlickrCC

As Maria Streshinsky and Shirley Streshinsky discovered on their recent trip to Ireland, the country's cuisine has more going for it than potatoes and Guinness. Here, a survey of the island's other memorable foods.

Three Great Cheeses

All three of these fine cheeses are made in the semi-soft, washed-rind style of the old Celtic (and French) monks. I've visited all three of the cheese makers and will vouch for the kindness of the people and the quality of their cheese. All of these folks were pioneers in the revival of traditional Irish cheese--I give them enormous credit for having built sustainable businesses, all of which are in the process of being passed successfully to the next generation. All three are fine cheeses, and all three have been exceptionally generous to us here at Zingerman's, and to the food world at large.

Some of the first cheesemakers I visited in Ireland, Tom and Giana Ferguson, have been making cheese since 1979. Tom's family has owned the farmland for five generations, and the name of the cheese is derived from the old Gaelic word gobin, which means "small mouthful," and is actually a reference to the incredibly beautiful bay near the town of Schull where the farm is located.

If you're looking at a map, it's the southwesternmost point in Ireland. The milk is all from their own herd, which includes a significant number of the small Irish black Kerry cows, which produce exceptionally good milk. Additionally, in the last few years, the Fergusons have started to become a completely GMO-free farm. The cheese is, again, semi-soft, and its flavor is marked with mellow notes of butter, mushroom, and toasted nuts.

I can pretty safely say that Barry's is to Irish tea times what Guinness is to pubs. It's that big a deal.

This is a wonderful, full-flavored but not too strong, washed-rind cheese from Kanturk in County Cork, made by Mary Burns. Mary and her late husband, Eugene, were some of the first of the revivalist cheesemakers in Ireland--they started making the cheese back in 1983. It's done with pasteurized milk from the farm's own herd, made into smallish two pound rounds. The flavor is full but accessible, hinting of mushrooms, milk, and maybe a touch of honey in the finish.

Made from raw milk, further out west in Cork, this time by Jeffa Gill. She's been at it since 1979, so when I tasted it on my first trip over in '89, I guess the Durrus was pretty much well-established. In the Bridgestone Irish Food Guide, the quintessential companion for anyone headed to Ireland, John and Sally McKenna called Durrus "one of the world's greatest raw milk cheeses," and "... the triumph of art over the blandness of technology."

Two Blues
Both of these cheeses are made by the Grubb family on their farm in County Tipperary. Both are made entirely by hand, and both, I think, are quite darned tasty!

Cashel Blue is the latecomer of this group--the Grubbs started making it in 1984, which means that they'd already been at it for five years before I got there for that first visit in '89. Their blue cheese has been very, very good ever since the first time I had it--softish texture, nice light brown/pinky rind, and a good, sweet, milky flavor.

The Crozier Blue is a more recent contribution to the Irish dairy world. The Grubbs buy the milk for this one from their nephews, Henry and Louis Clifton Browne, who farm not far from Cashel.

NOTE: These blues, as well as the other cheeses, are excellent with well-buttered Irish brown soda bread!

Barry's Tea

If you're into Irish tea drinking this is THE tea to have. I can pretty safely say that Barry's is to Irish tea times what Guinness is to pubs. It's that big a deal. For clarity, if you're into fine estate teas, elegant Japanese greens, or complex Chinese oolongs, don't buy Barry's. Barry's is what you drink when you want that real Irish cup of tea to have on a cold, damp day.

Although I personally drink it black, in Ireland milk and sugar are pretty much always added, so much so that drinking it black as I do gets me looks akin to trying to eat corned beef with mayonnaise at the Deli. When you brew it, Barry's comes up a clear red color in the cup, and it's got a big, winy thick-bodied flavor that results from the high percentage of African teas that make up its base. In the Bridgestone Guide the McKennas wrote, "If we lived away from Ireland, this is the drink we'd want shipped over from home." If I'm going to drink bagged tea, Barry's is far and away the one I'd want. 'Nuf said?

Irish Bacon

If you're looking for something substantial to start your day, Irish bacon is a really good way to go. The same tasty pork that anyone who's traveled to or lived in Ireland has enjoyed as part of one of those hearty Irish breakfasts they're so good at serving, with freshly cooked eggs, bacon, tomato, and buttered toast with plenty of jam on the side, and a steaming pot of tea to pour. Irish bacon is basically the pork loin with a bit of the side bacon attached. It's very lean, lightly smoky, subtly sweet, ready to eat.

Great for breakfast, but also for sandwiches, or diced and dropped into omelets of all sorts. Great little treat for anyone you know (like me) who loves Ireland and all things Irish.