When the history of artisan Irish food is written in 100 or even 300 years, one name will leap from the page: Veronica Steele.
I do not say this lightly. Yes historians may focus on the deprivations of post-war Ireland and our plain but healthy diet and the slow move towards industrialisation, however this narrative contains little to excite the historian that actually cares about flavour.
Veronica Steele could be seen as ground zero for Irish artisan food, and her loss at a mere 69 is a great one. She passed away early in 2017 after a long struggle with a horrible disease called multiple system atrophy, but her great legacy is of course Milleens cheese and the dozens of cheeses it inspired.
Milleens was the first of the Irish farmhouse cheeses and is still one of the very best. Veronica’s son Quinlan is in charge now and he has the same sure touch as his mother. This washed rind cheese varies depending on how it has been stored, but whether young and chalky or melting and rich it is always hugely complex and, crucially, delicious.
Her story is worth retelling. In the 1970s Veronica was living on a small farm on the Beara Peninsula with her husband Norman, who she met at UCC when he gave a lecture on Wittgenstein. In a piece she wrote in 2012, she gave her reasons for beginning the journey that led to Milleens as “hunger and shame”. Ask for a local cheese in those days and you would be offered Calvita, as happened to an older French couple Veronica witnessed in the local shop one day.
Brisket the cow arrived on their smallholding around this time and, given that she was producing three gallons of milk a day, Veronica began to make cheddars. Soon she was experimenting with soft cheeses and early in the process “a quare hawk arrived – wild weird and wonderful”.
The Blue Bull restaurant in Sneem was already taking vegetables from the Steeles, and as luck would have it Declan Ryan of the Michelin starred Arbutus Lodge restaurant was there the very evening Milleens made its debut. Soon Milleens was on the cheeseboard at Arbutus and Ballymaloe House, and the Irish cheese renaissance had begun.
Veronica began teaching her neighbours, notably Jeffa Gill of Durrus fame and many others. Veronica told me once that following her example all her neighbours began making cheese and we could have had Beara Peninsula Cheese as its own IGP (picture it!), but inevitably the health inspectors (precursors to the FSAI) soon put a stop to such nonsense. Thankfully others persisted – Coolea was first made in 1979; Gubbeen, Cashel Blue, Ardrahan and others all appeared within a couple of years.
At the instigation of the producers, lectures were organised in UCC to teach the art of cheesemaking and many more styles arrived. There were battles ahead of course and they continue – It broke Veronica’s heart to move to pasteurised production, but life moved on. Many were forced to pasteurise given the impossible pressure they were placed under by official Ireland in the early years, and while raw milk cheese is understood better now we still only have a paltry few hanging on. Seamus Sheridan once told me that he was ordered to remove that “obviously too old” Milleens from sale by an EHO but within hours the Department of Foreign Affairs were on the phone begging for a fully mature Milleens as “the French are due in tomorrow”!
I only met Veronica a couple of times, but I remember each meeting vividly. She was warm, funny and wise and her passion and enthusiasm radiated out of her and was instantly infectious. The revolution in quality Irish food might have happened anyway, but it would have been very different if it hadn’t been for Veronica – we need a statue of her on Kildare Street as a constant reminder to our TDs and the nearby apparatchiks in the Department of Agriculture.