Food: Dublin's Big Cheese

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Barra McFeely has won a best cheese in Ireland

prize for 'Brie'. But he didn't learn his skills in

France, says Michael Bateman, he went to Tibet

IF AN IRISHMAN wanted to learn to make Brie, would he not head for Tibet, Mongolia and China? Sure, but only after he'd been to Brazil to master the making of Swiss cheese, Argentina to make Italian cheese, Chile for Danish cheese and so on round South America.

You can see the logic; and after that, making a Brie would be a doddle. We can only be talking about the precocious Barra McFeely, who at 29, has for three years running won prizes for making the best cheese in Ireland.

The last time he won it was with his "Brie", though he can't call it a Brie, since the name is rigorously protected in France (the Briards have made this snowy-coated, soft cheese since the 8th century at least).

Barra McFeely, whose cheese is called Dunbarra, uses the same Brie recipe, the same starter, the same bacterium to produce the snowy white mould (Penicillium candidum), but to avoid confusion he makes his in different shapes (one them in the shape of a Camembert actually, the other the width of a Brie but twice as deep).

It must be very difficult to master such a cheese? I ask him, standing in the church vestry in the middle of Dublin where this remarkable young man makes his award-winning cheese. "No, it's very easy to make Brie," says Barra. "The reason why I make it is because it's the easiest. It ripens in two weeks, so it doesn't tie up storage space."

That he has created a winning Brie-type cheese, here in the church, a stone's throw from the Liffey, within these islands is surely amazing. For two millennia we have settled for a not immodest range of hardish cheeses (such as Cheddar, Cheshire, Gloucester, Leicester, Caerphilly, Lancashire, etc).

Many of us will have assumed that it was our inhospitable climate which prevented us from making cheeses comparable to Brie, Camembert, Pont I'Eveque and 100 other such creamy soft rounds. No such thing, says Barra. "You only need to know how to make them, and the French haven't been into sharing their secrets with us." Which is where our story begins.

Barra McFeely studied agriculture and food engineering at college and it was vacation job that put him on the cheese trail. With no intention of pursuing such a career he worked with cheesemakers Veronica and Norman Steele in the Beara Peninsula, west of Cork. Here the Steeles had established one of Ireland's first new generation cheeses, Milleens, which is similar to a Pont I'Eveque in style. Not your ordinary cheese-makers, the Steeles - he was a philosophy lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin and she one of his students. Then they decamped for a more bucolic lifestyle.

Barra was bitten by the cheese bug, and at once switched to a two-year masters in cheese-making. He landed another vac job, this time in France, as an inspector measuring the size of holes in Emmenthal. He learnt to speak French, but where the Steeles had shared everything they knew, the French decidedly didn't. It soon became clear that no one in France, Germany, Holland, Denmark or, for that matter, Switzerland, was, in fact, going to entertain him in his search to master the craft of European cheese-making.

This is when young Barra hatched his master-plan. He approached the Irish authorities and asked for a grant to travel around South America in order to study European cheese-making.

"They clearly thought I was mad," says Barra, "but I explained that no one in Europe was ever going to teach me." There was something so irresistibly Irish about his logic, there was nothing they could do but say yes, producing an air fare and some travelling expenses.

First stop Brazil, where he immediately had to learn a new language, Portuguese. His first hosts were making Dutch cheese. He stayed for five months before moving on to Argentina, linking up with Italians, a pattern he has repeated in half the countries on the continent, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colom-bia, Bolivia and Uruguay.

He then returned to college, only to take off again at the end of his second year to China, Mongolia and Tibet. He learnt Chinese by standing on the street corner of a large Chinese city holding up children's picture language cards. Amused by the entertainment, a crowd would form around him, and each time he said a word they would shout to correct his pronunciation, not allowing him to carry on until got it perfect.

Barra now speaks seven languages. And he has "cut the cheese" in no fewer than 12 countries. During his travels he has acquired the "secrets" of making 40 of the main commercial cheeses in the world. "All the big ones except cheddar."

And not only big ones. On the wall of the vestry, there's a picture of a woman in the desert making a half pound cheese; beside her there is the dried stomach of a new-born lamb. "It is the source of rennet which you stir into warm milk to separate the curds and whey," Barra explains. Is there an older food technology than cheese-making on this planet?

It is one thing to have such a warming global experience, but who wants to invest in a such a youthful idealist? He could find no backers. But then he entered a competition in Dublin and won first prize for presenting a business plan - to set up as a cheese-maker.

"Actually, the three judges offered to invest in it. But the publicity was good, and I was able to borrow money." St Paul's, a deconsecrated church which had been designated an enterprise zone, became his home, shared with a sandwich company, a chocolate cake firm, and various white collar workers. Using his food engineering know-how, Barra converted second- hand farming equipment to meet his needs, buying a chill container for pounds 2,500 instead of spending an unaffordable pounds 20,000 on maturing cellars.

Many were the obstacles he had to overcome. The two food distributors who'd promised to sell his cheeses went back on their word. "So I got on my bicycle and rode round delis, selling a few cheeses here and there. I realised very soon I wasn't going to make a living selling from my bike."

However, a timely radio interview generated so much publicity that the supermarkets approached the distributors: "Where can we get this cheese?" Two and half years on and people stop him in the street. "Aren't you the guy who was on the radio?"

Two and a half years ago - an eon. That was about the time there was a great gnashing of teeth in the London headquarters of the mighty British supermarket firm, J Sainsbury, who'd enjoyed the position of leading high street cheesemongers for longer than anyone could remember. They'd just been outsmarted by arch rivals Tesco who had the brilliant idea of sponsoring the national British Cheese Awards. By attracting massive publicity Tesco became at one stroke the Big Cheese of Britain's big cheeses. So well-conceived was the strategy that two years ago Tesco swept ahead of the field to become Britain's largest cheese retailer, now dominating 24 per cent of the market.

Sainsbury's had good reason to be seriously cheesed off. Back in the 1980s, during the listeria scare, Sainsbury's, alone among supermarkets, stood firm and promised customers they would continue to stock cheeses made from unpasteurised milk as such cheeses util-ise the skill of the cheesemaker to produce products of glorious complexity.

But the agenda moves on. The Barras of this world accept these limitations and still manage cheeses of genius. Anyway, a bit of competition between supermarkets is no bad thing for customers. Sainsbury's thus responded by sending their newly-appointed cheese buyer, Julian Dyer, to go where no cheese-buyer had gone before.

Dyer's investigations soon led him to Ireland where he discovered what all Ireland already knew, that there was a raft of some 40 wondrous cheeses of all sorts; from Ardrahan, Carrigaline and Cooleeney, to Doolin and Durrus, Kerry Farmhouse and Lavistown, from Cratloe Hill Sheep's Cheese to St Tola Goats Cheese Log, from Cashel Blue, Gubbeens and Milleens, to Dunbarra. It was a matter of very little effort to secure a prestigious platter of Irish cheeses which they could present to 25 of Sainsbury's more deserving stores.

Barra's immediate future looks rosy (when I visited him in the company of Julian Dyer he announced he could up production to meet Sainsbury's request to get into 50 stores). But as those who have met Barra McFeely will realise this is not the end of the story, merely the start. For it is impossible that Barra will not move in due course to a rural setting where he can indulge his skills, reviving the world of Irish cheese. (According to the the Irish food historian, Regina Sexton, cheesemaking was a thriving Celtic activity in the 8th and 9th centuries but, due to the politicians, collapsed in the mid-17th century).

The opportunity to expand Irish cheese is a great challenge, given that Ireland is the major importer of UK cheese, buying in pounds 134m worth a year. With modest charm Barra points out that Ireland produces a mere 3 per cent of milk in the EC. If it is made into speciality cheeses and sold to the top 3 per cent of customers, they will have have done very well indeed. They are well down this road.

The recipes that follow suit Barra's Dunbarra or any Brie type cheese. They are from Peter Graham's excellent Classic Cheese Cookery (Penguin pounds 15).

BRIE OMELETTE

Serves 4

2 tablespoons double cream

80g/3oz ripe Brie, trimmed of its rind

8 eggs

30g/1oz unsalted butter

pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper

Put the cream and the cheese into a small thick saucepan and heat gently until the cheese has melted, stirring all the time. Set aside and keep warm.

Break the eggs into a bowl and beat for about 30 seconds. Melt the butter over a high heat in a large non- stick frying pan, making sure it coats the whole surface of the frying pan and part of the sides. When the butter has completely melted and begins to foam, pour in the eggs and reduce the heat to low.

As the edges of the omelette cook, lift them at various points and, tilting the pan, allow the uncooked egg on the surface of the omelette to run over the edge and come into contact with the hot pan. Sprinkle with salt and plenty of pepper. When there remains only a thin layer of runny egg, dribble the melted cheese evenly over the omelette, fold and transfer to a warm, but not hot, serving dish.

CROQUE-BRIARD AU CUMIN

This is an original recipe that was given to Peter Graham by Guy Girard who was proprietor and chef of one of my favourite restaurants in Paris in the Sixties - Le Galant Verre.

The name croque-briard is an invention of Girard's, on the analogy of croque-monsieur. Briard, in lexicographer's jargon means "of, relating to, or characteristic of the Brie region".

Serves 4

200g/7oz ripe Brie

120g/4oz unsalted butter, softened

8 large slices brioche, toasted

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon caraway seeds

1 tablespoon fresh chives, finely chopped

Trim the cheese of any hard or brown bits of rind, and mash thoroughly with half of the butter. Spread this mixture very thickly and evenly on four pieces of toasted brioche, sprinkle with the paprika and caraway seeds, and top with another slice of toast. Spread the top with the remaining butter, well softened, and sprinkle with a few chives. Place the sandwiches on a lightly oiled baking dish and bake in a fairly hot oven (375F/190C/Gas 5) for about 15 minutes.

GALETTES BRIARDES

AROMATIC, CRUSTY BRIE-FLAVOURED BISCUITS

Serves 4

200g/7oz ripe Brie

70g/212oz unsalted butter, diced

2 egg yolks

pinch of salt

pinch freshly ground white pepper

pinch freshly grated nutmeg

250g/9oz sifted plain flour

1 tablespoon milk

Trim the cheese of any hard or brown bits of rind. Mash it in a mixing bowl, add the butter, egg yolks, salt, pepper and nutmeg, and blend. Gradually add the flour and knead everything together until a rather stiff, smooth dough is obtained. If necessary, add a few drops of cold water. Wrap in aluminium foil and chill for one hour.

On a lightly floured surface, roll out about 6mm (14in) thick. Cut serrated rounds of about 7cm (3in) in diameter. Arrange on lightly oiled baking sheets, score lightly in a criss-cross pattern with a fork, brush with milk and bake in a fairly hot oven (375F/190C/Gas 5) for about 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a rack.

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