Happy St. Patrick’s Day to anyone who celebrates it. Over the last couple of weeks, courtesy of the Pong Cheese Irish Selection Box, I’ve learned a great deal about the history and diversity of Irish cheese. Today’s cheese sums up the island’s cheese renaissance, blending fresh milk from green pastures with inspiration from further afield – in this case, France. As you can see, though, Humming Bark is not a cheese for amateurs. It’s not just flexing its muscles; it’s actually burst through its shirt, Hulk-style.
Humming Bark is a semi-soft, pasteurised, cow’s milk cheese produced by David and Jenny Maslen of Carrigbyrne Farmhouse Cheese in County Wexford. As with so many Irish cheese-making enterprises, Carrigbyrne’s story starts in the early 1980s. Jenny’s father, Paddy Berridge, had followed his love of cheese-making to Normandy, where he had learned how to make Camembert. Returning to Ireland in 1982 to take over his father’s dairy farm, Paddy and his wife Julie first produced a blue cheese but became known for their Camembert-style cheese, St Killian.
Humming Bark is a relatively new addition to their stable. It’s made from the milk of the farm’s 350 cows, which are Friesians crossed with Jerseys. A washed rind cheese, aged in spruce bark, it’s a nod to a Vacherin Mont d’Or. The origins of using the bark lie over in the French mountains, where spruces are common at the high altitudes where cheeses like Comté and Gruyère are made. At the end of the season for these hard cheeses, the cows would descend from the mountains for the winter and their diet would change; grass and alpine flowers gave way to dried hay, resulting in smaller, fattier cheeses. Without some sort of binding, the creamy cheese would escape to form a puddle (as mine is attempting to do above). Spruce bark, being both readily available and pliable, was the natural answer.
When Paddy first began to develop Humming Bark, they experimented with using the bark from trees in the garden, stripping the bark off vertically so it wouldn’t kill the trees. However, when they decided to start selling the cheese, they sourced bark from France. The French name for such bark strips is sangle, meaning belt or strap. Humming Bark is washed every two days to encourage the Brevibacterium linens cultures that result in the orange, sticky rind characteristic of washed rind cheeses. The name, much like Stinking Bishop, is a bit tongue in cheek; Humming Bark certainly does ‘hum.’
…Ah yes, and about that orange, sticky rind… Humming Bark is one of the cheeses which features in The Ultimate Pong Box, which is marketed with the phrase ‘send as a gift or an act of revenge’ and this sums up the divisive nature of washed rind cheeses. In our household, battle lines have been drawn: I am a cautious fan of washed rind cheeses but the Other Half finds the majority of them beyond the pale. Humming Bark met with a predictable response. As soon as we unwrapped it, it made its presence felt with a stench of unwashed feet with a hint of ammonia and he retreated to another room.
I was braver and, after a period of allowing it to breathe, decided to investigate. The rind was way too much for me but I sliced a portion away to reveal the liquid cheese underneath. There’s no denying it, this cheese is pungent but if you can get beyond the smell and into the paste, there are subtleties to be found, with hints of resin and a gloriously creamy texture. Its legions of fans on the internet shower it with praise such as ‘[it’s a] fantastically beautiful cheese, the best in Ireland’ and ‘this little sod was magnificent.’ It was also awarded Reserve Champion at both the Irish and British Cheese Awards, which is not to be sniffed at. And indeed, if you’re of a nervous disposition, I wouldn’t sniff at Humming Bark either.