A great family of local food makers in West Cork on the Wild Atlantic Way.
We met Giana Ferguson at Skibbereen Farmers’ Market on a Saturday in late October. We chatted over some dim sum served from a market stall, and she told us about the history of her wonderful cheese and how the farm had developed into a leading Irish artisan food producer.
Giana loves the Market. She says markets are like cocktail parties, you can meet all your friends over a little drink and nice nibbles of food, catch up on all the local news, and be entertained maybe with a little music and theatre – all said whilst the very pleasant busker went into another song behind us on this mild autumn morning. These were the days before the virus.
The story of Gubbeen cheese began when Tom Ferguson was joined on the dairy farm that had been in his family for six generations by his new wife. Giana had learnt to make soft cheese from the milk from her father’s goats, and so it seemed natural to experiment with making cheese on the kitchen Aga in an old ham pot. A good friend from nearby Durrus would come over and share her knowledge.
Initially the cheese was just made for their young family, but word spread and a single round was put cautiously behind the counter in O’Keefe’s general store in Schull. Giana told them to call her if it was in the way. 15 minutes after she got home the phone rang – to say that her cheese, it was already sold, and they wanted more as soon as possible.
The cheese is named after the family farm where it was first created, and is now distributed internationally and enjoyed by far more people than just the Ferguson family. The early years of investing in the necessary kit and complying with legal requirements were tough, but Giana always believed in her cheese and took encouragement from the support of other local cheese producers and characters such as Neal’s Yard Dairy in Covent Garden, London.
In those early years when the public were waking up to the value of artisan food, they were part of the a new Irish cheesemakers network, and recognised the value of working together with fellow artisans. This is a common theme with the skilled foodies that we meet: they have a passion for what they do, and are generous in sharing their experience and support with their food community.
There have been variations of Gubbeen over the years, but they have settled on two cheeses, both with washed rinds, one natural and one smoked. During production both types are washed in milk and wine, to develop the distinct character of the rind, and the smoked cheese is dipped in wax to preserve that lovely smoky flavour.
When Giana first arrived at the farm, tankers would arrive daily to take the milk away to be made into cheddar, but Gubbeen is proud that today all milk produced by the farm’s herd of around 130 dairy cows is made into cheese right there on the property. Increasing cheese production by buying in milk is not an option – like a fine wine, the character and flavour of an artisan cheese reflects its terroire, and bringing in ingredients from elsewhere, however expertly produced, can upset the delicate balance that creates a well-defined product.
Giana’s eyes light up when she talks about her cheese, and is delighted that Gubbeen is a farm that supports not just herself and Tom and their traditional dairy herd, but also an environment in which both their children have found their own unique ways of living with and off this land, that has already sustained generations of Fergusons.
And the Family Business is growing
The stories of Fingal and Clovisse will be covered in future blog posts and demonstrate the innovative ways of this fascinating family.
And what does the future hold? There is another generation waiting in the wings, and we are told that the oldest grandchild – very sensibly! – is a fan of cheese, so we can’t wait to see what other fabulous foodieness might come out of this beautiful, wild and creative corner of Ireland.