Tucked away in the diverse, rugged landscape of the Burren near the town of Inagh, County Clare, you will come across rich pastureland dotted with grazing goats. These animals are part of a herd that belongs to Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith and her life partner John Harrington at St. Tola Goat Farm.
The farm, and the multi award-winning cheese made there, is named for St. Tola – the patron saint of County Clare. St. Tola settled here in the year 700 AD. He was Bishop of Clonard, Gwynn and Hadcock, and founded his church in what later became known as Dysert Tola. As Siobhan explained, “St. Tola is buried at Dysert O’Dea Castle near Corofin, five miles over the road from our farm.”
It has been nearly twenty years since Siobhan left Galway city to return to Inagh and farming. While in Galway, she taught at an all Irish language primary school, Scoil Iognáid, in Salthill, and studied marketing and business at Galway University.
When I visited the farm and met her (and the goats) I understood why she left the security of a steady paycheck and pension. The countryside, deep in the heart of Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way, is ruggedly beautiful.
“My family has been farming in Inagh since my grandfather bought his farm in 1930,” she told me. “My roots are here. So, when this farm came up for sale I made the leap to become a farmer, going back to the land.
“There are few cheese-makers that actually make cheese on a farm. It’s imperative we look after the land we have. It’s not about getting bigger and better it’s about the farm, and getting back to the land.”
Siobhan started a hands-on education in making cheese at St. Tola in 1998. Her teachers were then-neighbours Meg and Derrick Gordon, who ran the farm as a small business. The following year, when the Gordons announced their desire to retire, Siobhan and John bought the property outright. They increased the size of the herd to 200 goats, hired seven full time employees, and leased sixty acres of pastureland from her father.
Having owned the Kush Shellfish Company in Kenmare, County Kerry for thirty years, John brought a wealth of marketing skills to the new business.
Soon after, the couple set up shop at local and area Farmer’s Markets, handing out samples to curious customers. It wasn’t long before word of mouth and intense marketing to restaurants, wholesalers and shops, brought on a rush of orders. The pair furthered their reach by connecting with Failte Ireland, the Burren Ecotourism Network, the Burren Food Trail, the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association, and the Irish Raw Milk Presidia of Slow Food Ireland.
As St. Tola goat cheese is hand-crafted in small batches, making it takes several days.
While touring the farm, and over bites of the wonderful St. Tola Ash Log, Siobhan explained the almost week-long process.
“We milk 200 goats twice a day, early morning and evening. The fresh milk is pumped from the milking parlor into the vats in the cheese house.”
“Every morning the milk is heated to between 18 to 25 degrees Celsius. It is then pumped into large muslin bags. We use a special milk culture to test the PH, when it has dropped to a certain level then we add the traditional animal rennet. This helps the milk to split between the curds (the solid fatty bit) and the whey (the watery bit). The milk is then left to stand alone in a warm room for 24 hours. We do not touch it at all during this time allowing the curds and whey to gently develop.
“On the second day we drain the curd. The milk has now split into curds and whey. We want the curd for the cheese making, so we slowly winch up the cheese cloth muslin bags and allow the whey to drain off for another 24 hours. There is no pressure put on the draining bags, the cheese drains simply through the force of its own weight.
“On day three we fill the moulds. The drained curd is now ready for moulding. It is weighed and gently mixed with 1% salt until it is smooth and creamy. Some of the curd is used immediately for our fresh St. Tola Divine curd, so it is put into tubs and is ready to use. The rest of the curd is softly hand-ladled into log or crottinmoulds. This is very labour intensive but this gentle handling ensures that we get the softest, creamiest of textures. The less the curd is handled the better the final resulting cheese. The cheese continues to drain in the moulds for 24 hours.
“On the fourth day we apply the ash or maturing on the plain cheese. The moulded cheese is now put into a cold room for a minimum of 24 hours, but ideally for 72 hours. If the cheese is destined to become an ash log, then we take it out of its mould at this stage and apply a very thin layer of food grade charcoal. This acts as a seal around the cheese, it lowers the PH on the skin of the cheese and acts as a natural preservative.
“On the final day we mature the cheese. All of our cheese is matured to our customer’s specific requirements. Therefore it is only when the cheese comes out of the moulds that we then decide what we are going to do with it next. Some of our customers like our cheese very fresh and light and in this case the cheese goes into a cold refrigerator until we sell it. A cold refrigerator will slow down maturation.
“However, classic St. Tola is known for its beautiful wrinkled golden rind on the outside. This is formed by the natural growth of a harmless mould called geotricum. All of our cheeses will eventually develop this mould to some degree. That being said, we can aid this process by placing our cheeses in special maturation chambers or armoires. These are set to higher temperatures and variable humidity. In this way we can aid the growth of the golden rind in a more controlled way. Our mature St. Tola is left in these armoires for a number of days and turned daily until the golden rind has formed. When that happens these cheeses are wrapped and packed ready for dispatch.”
Along with making the cheese, there is no end of other tasks to keep the couple busy, including milking the goats twice a day, feeding them, watering them down, mucking out their barns, spreading hay, and herding them to and from pastureland. And then there are the ongoing demands of running a successful business; delivering to customers, setting up at farmers markets, ordering supplies, and keeping the finances.
“I sometimes wonder if I was stark-raving mad to leave my regular job all those years ago,” Siobhan laughs. “It’s not an easy life, but it’s a good life – truly a labour of love.”