Remembering Veronica Steele, the Mother of Irish Farmhouse Cheese

January 23, 2017

Earlier this month, Veronica Steele, widely heralded as the pioneer of modern-day Irish farmhouse artisan cheesemaking, died after a prolonged battle with multiple system atrophy. She was 69.

Forty years ago there was no farmhouse cheese made in Ireland until the woman on the far left of this photo decided to give cheesemaking a try, making the first artisan cheeses at her home in West Cork. These early attempts became Milleens cheese, which has won awards and fame as a much loved Irish food around the world. But what the young Veronica Steele did was more important than that. She created a food revolution in Ireland, several decades in the making that turned attention back to Irish farm ingredients and the quality of our natural environment and what it can produce. Together with Myrtle Allen and Darina Allen of @ballymaloe_house it was also a revolution of women in food; women chefs, artisans; food producers and food writers. Veronica, always humble in the face of the groundbreaking role she played in Irish artisan food is seen here in the mid-eighties with her husband Norman and their four children. There are now over one hundred craft or farmhouse cheeses in Ireland, many of them made by women on small farms. Very sadly, this clever, elegant, exceptional woman died today. Rest in peace Veronica đź’« #VeronicaSteele #ireland #IrishFood #cheese #Milleens #MilleensCheese #artisan #artisanfood #farming #cheesemaking #localfood #cork #westcork #realfood #family #chef #restaurants #womeninfood #family #craft #makers #environment #countryliving #rural #farmhousecheese #Ballymaloe @darina_allen

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Coverage of Steele's death beyond the Irish press has been nonexistent, which isn’t terribly surprising. Steele’s isn’t a name that conjures up a specific cultural image outside of Ireland. But that should change, especially considering her single-handed revitalization of the industry of Irish cheesemaking.

In the early 1970s, Steele, then in her twenties, was living on a farm on the Eyeries of southwestern Ireland’s Beara Peninsula. She was with her husband Norman, whom she met while studying philosophy at University of College Cork. They married and had four kids. Deep into her marriage, Steele became obsessed with how to reap profit from the cows they had on their farm. She spent those years poring over archives of the history of Irish cheese-making, and how the art was gradually lost centuries ago. Steele then began a rather radical experiment, hoping to put her fertile cows' excess milk to use: she’d take the milk from her one-horned Friesian cow, one she'd named Brisket, and create cheese from it.

After multiple experiments and some less-than-stellar results (she made some cheddars and gorgonzolas she didn't like at all), what came of this was the Milleens cheese Steele became famous for. Milleens is a washed-rind, semi-soft cheese whose ripening process continues for up to three months after production. Its flavor can have floral or grassy notes, depending on the season. The product is still widely-marketed in Ireland, and quite popular.

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Steele made Milleens in a time when laws regarding Irish farming didn't favor dairy farmers. She lobbied with the Irish government to let dairy farmers make cheese from scratch. Her efforts led to blossoming of artisanal cheese-making in the country, and it flourished in the four decades following the advent of Milleens.

Steele retired from the industry in 2003 to care for her dying mother, and she ceded the business to her son, Quinlan, who survives her. Still, tributes to Veronica continued to roll in later in life: Just last year, she was granted a place in Good Food Ireland's coveted Hall of Fame. Most remembrances of her cycle through synonymous adjectives—gregarious, witty, feisty, outspoken—but you can get sense of her personality in her own writing, on the Milleens website, where she transcribed her 40-year-old diary she kept through the decades. “As we all know, any fool can make a “cheese”,” she wrote in one early entry. “It takes genius to ripen it.”

Ever had Milleens cheese? Did you know about Veronica Steele? Let us know in the comments.

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Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.