Week 11: A day out at the Ardsallagh goat’s cheese company

Once upon a time in the 80s, a door-to-door life insurance salesman rang the Murphy family’s doorbell, and unsuccessful in his purpose, he left a surprising parting gift of on their front lawn – a heavily pregnant goat. It transpires that goat’s milk works miracles for eczema, which Jane Murphy’s children suffered from. One goat led to many goats, and these are the auspicious beginnings of the award-winning Ardsallagh goat’s cheese company, run by Jane Murphy, who kindly invited me to her goat farm and dairy. It was a Sunday afternoon, and Jane and her daughter, Louise, had just finished preparing 1,700 litres of milk for the day.

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Why did you get into making goat’s cheese?

We started with one goat, and natural multiplication meant we soon had more milk than we knew what to do with, and I started experimenting with making cheese.

Then we heard that a friend of ours was selling a herd of 400 goats and I jumped at the chance to do this properly. There’s definitely an insanity to it, it takes over your whole life, I think I’ve become like a big mamma goat. The goats are hilarious, and very clever, which might surprise people. Every herd has a strong hierarchy, based on how many kids the goats have had. They know their own names and know us. We never cease to be amazed by what they get up to.

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The curds from the goat’s milk on their way to becoming cheese

Is there a secret to making your goat’s cheese?

It’s a lot to do with the quality of the goat’s milk – if you treat goats well, they’ll give you good milk. They’re very fussy eaters, and the area they’re from flavours the milk – like terroir for wine, I like to think. We have to keep them away from plants in the Brassica family, else you’ll get cabbagy cheese. It can be tricky to control what they eat. Once a year, we found the goats decide, as if by committee, that it’s NETTLE DAY and they go mad for the nettles in the ditches as we shepherd them from the field to the barn – three days later, they completely ignore them.

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(Above – the smoker, used to make the Ardsallagh smoked cheeses)

You’re working on a Sunday – is this a 365 day type of job?

When we had the herd, we were wedded to the farm and would never take time away… we once went on holiday for a weekend just down the road, and the goats missed just one milking – it took us six months to recover milk production volumes. Even without the goats, we now have large orders to keep up with supplying supermarkets, food distributors and local businesses, so are making cheese 6 or 7 days a week… I sometimes get some downtime between Christmas and New Year, which is when I experiment with new cheeses.

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So you don’t use your own milk anymore?

No, we now use milk from local herds and continue to make cheeses here on the farm. About five years ago, we made one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever made – to sell the herd. Local TB scares were making it increasingly risky, and stressful, to have a herd – if any tested positive, we would have lost the whole herd, everything we have worked for gone. There is no compensation. It was heart-breaking when they finally went, I couldn’t help but hide my favourites… there were goats in the boiler room, store room, downstairs loo… my husband found most of them. We still have twenty goats, we could never be without at least a few.

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Helen, a particularly cheeky goat

If that’s your lowest point, what has been the highest?

One of the best moments was winning Best New Cheese in the Irish Cheese Awards 2012 with our mild goat’s cheese and cranberry roulade. Everyone in the family was quite dismissive of it at first, but I tried it out at the farmers’ market (a great place to get feedback on your products) and it’s been a great success. We are always experimenting with different methods, goat’s cheese is incredibly versatile.

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Another high point is how my family has grown up, gone off to do their own thing, and have slowly gravitated back to the business, helping in some way. Production never stops here, and it was really special to have my whole family gathered around in the dairy in Father Christmas hats rolling up 250 cranberry roulades and singing Ding Dong Merrily on High at the top of our lungs. Moments like that make it all worth it.

What would be in your desert island picnic basket?

As many rounds of my plain young goat’s cheese as I’m allowed
A case of wine, like Sally Barnes
Fingal Ferguson’s ham (Fingal is from the same family who make the famous Gubbeen Irish cheese. He also makes excellent knives).
Black pudding

What I’ve learned

The phrase “kidnap” comes from when goats steal/adopt particularly good-looking newly born kids from other goats in the heard, thus napping their kids.

Who knew?

Where can you get some Ardsallagh goat’s cheese?

Find out here: www.ardsallaghgoats.ie

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