Something was missing from the Irish food market, and Aisling and Michael Flanagan have made it their mission to fill that gap. When they were working in Italy and France, the husband and wife realised that we had no dairy products made from sheep’s milk in this country and as a result, they set up Velvet Cloud, their specialist sheep dairy business in Mayo, in 2015.
Aisling is from Dublin and Michael grew up on his family’s traditional dairy farm in Mayo, where they also kept sheep.
“He always had an interest in dairy and sheep,” says Aisling. “We met while studying agricultural science in UCD in our early twenties. Then we were lucky enough to work in Italy and France for over a decade and it was during those years that our passion for good food was fostered.”
It was also where they noticed the prevalence of sheep dairy products. “There were so many sheep in Ireland and we wondered why people weren’t milking them,” says Aisling. “When we came back to Ireland to live on Michael’s family farm to give our children a better lifestyle, we looked into the potential for sheep’s milk products a bit more.”
They visited supermarkets all over Europe. They sampled different products and they experimented with making small batches of sheep’s yoghurt in their home kitchen.
They eventually settled on a simple recipe. Their mild and creamy yoghurt contains just two ingredients: fresh sheep’s milk that comes from the grass-fed ewes they keep on their own farm, combined with live probiotic yoghurt cultures.
“Once we were happy, we distributed samples of the yoghurt to speciality retailers asking for feedback,” says Aisling. “To our surprise, the response was overwhelming. I remember getting a phone call from John McKenna and Seamus Sheridan who were together at the Galway Food Festival. They loved the yoghurt.”
Having developed their product, the next step was logistics. “It took time to develop the brand and packaging and it also took a long time to get a licence from the Department of Agriculture to produce sheep’s milk dairy products,” says Aisling.
Once this was in place, the product was launched and almost immediately, chefs were interested. “Thirty minutes after I tweeted about our launch, JP McMahon of Aniar asked us to drop some into him and that was followed by a similar message from Jess Murphy in Kai,” says Aisling.
The business grew quickly, with new restaurant and retail customers signing up weekly. “By 2016, we had a distributor in Dublin for our retail business and we had a great relationship with La Rousse Foods who distribute to restaurants and with Irish Independent Health Foods who distribute to health food shops nationwide,” says Aisling. “Currently, we are available in more than 100 different retailers and we have featured on the menus of some of the top dining restaurants in the country, including five of the Michelin-starred restaurants.”
Aisling and Michael haven’t limited themselves to producing Ireland’s only commercially-available sheep’s milk yoghurt either. Velvet Cloud also products fresh and frozen sheep’s milk and a semi-hard 90-day-old sheep’s cheese called Rockfield.
There are many reasons for their success to date. Sheep’s milk has a higher nutritional content than cow’s milk. It’s thicker and creamier with a milder, less tangy taste, which makes it popular with chefs. It also suits people who are allergic to cow’s milk and have to avoid traditional dairy products as a result. These creamy products have won awards.
“We were delighted to win Great Taste and Blas na hÉireann awards,” says Aisling. “But perhaps the most significant of all was the Eurotoques Innovation in Dairy Award 2016. You can’t enter this award. Instead chef members of Eurotoques nominate producers. Winning it really helped to build our reputation with chefs.”
Another award that made a difference was winning silver at the World Cheese Awards last year. “That’s been very useful within the trade too,” says Aisling.
Currently, Aisling and Michael are milking up to 350 ewes on their farm and focusing on growing the market for their milk, yoghurt and cheese here and abroad. “We have just started exporting to London,” says Aisling. “We’ve secured a distributor who caters to the foodservice industry there. Foodservice accounts for 40% of our sales here and seeing our name on menus has helped to build the brand among retail customers. We have also started to supply Daylesford Organic, which
is an upmarket retail brand in the UK. Brexit is throwing a bit of a spanner in the works but hopefully we can replicate what we’ve done here in Ireland over in the UK.”
For more information about Velvet Cloud, visit www.velvetcloud.ie.