It’s fitting that Irish artisan farmhouse cheesemakers should be pairing up with Irish craft brewers to bring us a weekend of tastings and events this Bank Holiday weekend. Events are being held in farmhouses and breweries, restaurants and gastropubs, off-licences and markets all over the country (see below for some highlights, and the link to the full listings). According to Bord Bia, who are supporting the festival, there are 50 of the former operating in Ireland today, producing over 140 varieties of cheese, and 17 of the latter. They didn’t say how many varieties of beers these brewers produce between themselves, but as most seem to brew at least two or three styles of beer and some up to a dozen or more, that’s certainly enough varieties to base a proper knees-up of a Bank Holiday festival on.
The reason it seems fitting is two-fold. The first is that the farmhouse cheesemakers were the original artisan food producers here in Ireland, at least in the sense that we understand the moniker today. Of course, on one level we’ve always had artisan producers in the form of our butchers, our bakers, our butter-makers. Long before farmers’ markets became de riguer we had Country Markets bulging to the rafters with fine fresh produce, preserves and baked delights. And of course we’ve had farmhouse cheesemakers for as long as we’ve had excess milk to use up before it sours.
But in terms of having a sector of artisan food producers to speak of, it was the cheesemakers who led the way. The Veronica Steeles and Giana Fergusons, the Jeffa Gills and Bill Hogans. These food heroes fought the good fight and paved the way for all the food producers that followed. They argued their case in farmyards and courtrooms alike in order to doggedly, determinedly carve a space in our culture where we might grant ourselves permission to really cherish and appreciate our food. They were the pioneers of the food culture flourishing today, a culture we are beginning to be rightfully proud of. They led the way for all the charcuterie makers, the chocolatiers, the smokers… and the craft brewers.
Of course we’ve been brewing beer here in Ireland for a little while, but the rise of a vibrant craft brewing sector is a development as recent as it is welcome. It’s just brilliant to see events like the recent Irish craft beer weekend in the RDS prove that there’s a rising tide of breweries lining up to quench our growing thirst for craft beer.
And so – symbolically speaking – it’s fitting that the cheesemaking vanguard of artisan producers should join forces with the latest foot soldiers in the good fight, the craft breweries. But it is also fitting in the sense that a well-made beer is a most appropriate beverage with which to wash down a well-crafted cheese. True, wine and cheese works well too, but not as universally as we tend to think, and certainly not to the exclusion of other beverages. I recently enjoyed an intriguing Slow Food tasting of Mexican mezcal and Irish cheeses, and finished another dinner party with a smorgasbord of cheeses and beers.
When choosing wine for food, we look for acidity to cleanse the palate, but beer’s carbonation plays a similar role, making it a refreshing pairing with naturally creamy cheese. Whether pairing cheese with wine, beer or even mezcal, balance is key – and that could be balancing like with like (such as a young Bluebell Fall’s goat cheese with a crisp and subtle Tom Crean’s Lager from Dingle Brewing Company, as suggested by food blogger Caroline Hennessy on behalf of Bord Bia) or it could be contrasting opposites (such as a sweet and savoury play of Stonewell Cider and Mount Callan Cheddar).
If you’d like a chance to try out some flavour combinations you may not have thought of or sought out, some of the highlights of this weekend’s festival include:
- Carlow Cheese & Carlow Brewing Company tastings on Saturday’s Halloween farmers’ market in Carlow town
- Eight Degrees Brewing and Horgan’s (distributors of farmhouse cheeses) team up at Ballyhoura’s outdoor mountain bike event
- Peter Ward of Tipperary’s Country Choice foodstore is holding events at Limerick’s Milk Market and at his store Nenagh
- Cloghtoberfest in Tipperary will weave cheese-tastings into their jazz-fueled celebration of local craft beers
If these events whet your appetite, there’s a whole weekends-worth of festivities, and they’re detailed on Bord Bia’s website here. Now all they need is a fitting appetite to appreciate them. Over to you.