Listening to John Hempenstall talk about his cheese is an education. Standing amongst the stainless steel tanks in the factory he designed and built himself at Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese and hearing him explain the delicate balance of enzymes, salt, acid and moisture content, he seems more alchemist than mere cheese maker. You also quickly get the sense that like anyone who’s passionate about what they do, John could happily talk about these things until his cows come home.
Milk is a live product, John explains, so the flavour of his cheese varies throughout the year, as opposed to a commercial product. His farm is located between the Croghan Mountains and the Irish Sea, so the closeness to the sea also lends his cheeses a distinctive taste.
All the cheese at Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese is made with milk from their own 70-strong herd of Friesian cows. Coming from generations of blacksmiths, John’s father bought the farm when John was born so that he’d have something to hand down, and in the same vein, John started making cheese not only to supplement his farm income, but so that he’d have something to pass on to his own children. It’s now a family business, with his daughter and a nephew working with him.
Back in 2005 John saw that there was a niche opportunity for a blue cheese in the Irish market, which led to him developing his award-winning flagship cheese, Wicklow Blue. Their second cheese was Wicklow Baun, a rich, double cream brie-like cheese.
The Hempenstalls are always trying to improve and every year they try something new, which led them to make a range of Wicklow Gold cheddars: plain, tomato and herb, and basil and garlic as well as the more unusual nettle and chive and, my favourite, seaweed, made with dillisk from the west of Ireland.
Their initial local success quickly became national, which means you can now find Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese in good shops, delis, farmers’ markets and restaurants around Ireland as well as the local Druids Glen hotel. The Blue and Baun cheeses are sold as small individual rounds, which makes them perfect for including on an Irish farmhouse cheese board, while the more unusual cheddars would liven up a ploughman’s plate. They’re all well worth seeking out, and I’ll be keeping an eye out to see what new cheese they come up with next.
Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese
Tel: +353 (0)40 291 713