I am ashamed to say this is the first Irish cheese to make it to the blog. When I decided to focus on ‘British’ cheeses, I wasn’t sure whether to include Irish; Ireland is, after all, a very separate country. I might just as well have included France or Papua New Guinea. I got myself in a right old pickle, trying to work out the difference between the United Kingdom, Great Britain and the British Isles (all completely different, since you ask). But there are so many great Irish cheeses with fascinating stories behind the people and landscapes that make them that I decided to settle on cheeses of the British Isles (a geographical term, not a political one, since you ask again). Plus, many of the Irish cheeses have won gongs at the British Cheese Awards, so that sealed it for me.
Phew, that was a hard-going intro, wasn’t it? Onto the cheese! Here is Coolea, a very Irish cheese (and if this picture doesn’t make you think of sunny days, I don’t know what will):
Coolea is a hard, pasteurised, cow’s milk cheese produced by Dicky Willems and his wife Sinead in County Cork. The cheese is named after the beautiful mountains that surround the farm and pronounced ‘Coo-LAY’. Dicky and Sinead are second-generation cheese-makers; it was Dicky’s parents, Dick and Helene, who came from Amsterdam originally in pursuit of ‘the good life’ on an Irish farm. Helene started making cheese just as a hobby to use milk from their cows. It wasn’t possible to buy Gouda locally at the time and so Helene wrote home for a recipe. However, word got out and before long Neal’s Yard Dairy were clamouring for their cheese (it won’t be long before they’re after my Stilton either, I tells you…;)) and a hobby became a family business. This was at a time when Irish farmhouse cheese was in the doldrums and the Willems were part of the forefront of a revival.
Reflecting their background, the cheese is influenced by Dutch Goudas. It’s a washed curd cheese meaning that, after the curd has coagulated, much of the whey is removed and then hot water is added to the vat. It’s also known as ‘delactosing’ as the process removes lactose (milk sugars), keeping the acidity of the cheese low which results in a sweet and nutty taste. They are then pressed for six hours before being brined. Gouda cheeses are not allowed to attract mould and so Coolea is covered in a breathable plastic coating which serves as its rind. This also helps the cheese to ripen (cheese ripens from the inside-out, fact fans).
The Willems make two types of the cheese, depending on the seasons. When the cows are outside feasting on the rich boggy pastures, the cheeses are sweet, with more potential for maturing – up to 18 months or even beyond. When the cows have to come inside and eat silage in the winter, they instead make a cheese that’s eaten much younger, from just two months (silage can make cheese taste peculiar as it ages).
I got my Coolea from Neal’s Yard Dairy and so it was a mature variety, although not very old, I don’t think, as it hadn’t got the bite and crunchy tyrosine crystals that a very old Gouda can get (see Reypenaer VSOP). It’s fair to say it was a hit and the four children I had with me fair mugged the lady behind the counter of every scrap that they could get out of her. Like any great Gouda, it’s a deliciously sweet cheese, like buttery caramel in your mouth. I defy anyone with tastebuds not to like Coolea; even the cat tried to poach some off the kitchen units.