Cottage industry at castle ruins
Between Loch Hyne and Baltimore, on a rocky outcrop high above the road, are the few remains of Ardagh Castle, most of the stones having been used many years ago. If you look really carefully you will see Judy Wotton's goats high up above you, nimbly jumping from crag to crag, enjoying the breeze.
Nestling below is a cluster of buildings beautifully restored by Judy. She runs a boarding kennels amongst other activities but what interested me was her handmade hard goats' cheese, Ardagh Castle Cheese, one of the best I have tasted.
Judy has been working on farms for much of her life and has always loved working with animals, so raising goats was a natural decision for her to take. She started making cheese in Devon in the early 1990s but in 1997 she moved to West Cork and fell in love with the abandoned farmhouse she now lives and works in.
Preservation of milk as a hard cheese was the starting point followed by the need to find a suitable hard cheese recipe in which she could use goat's milk. She found a traditional Wensleydale recipe which was originally created using sheep's milk but found little difficulty in tweaking it for making lovely cheese with 100% goats' milk.
The recipe is no secret and she teaches it in her hard cheese making classes that she runs at the farm. She also runs a goat keeping and soft cheese course and you can contact her to find out more.
Cheese production is seasonal and Judy makes cheese from March to October. She showed me the milking parlour and dairy, pristine in every way, which comes as a surprise when you look at the beautifully rustic buildings from the outside, in which the work is carried out. The unpasteurised milk is heated gently in a stainless steel tank when the starter culture is added. Non-GM vegetarian rennet (which separates the milk into curds and whey) goes in next and the milk is left to set for about 45 minutes, then stirred for another 45 minutes - a really labour intensive job. The whey is drained off and the cheese is cut into blocks which are turned every ten minutes for about half an hour.
The next stage involves breaking up the blocks into cherry-sized chunks and this is called milling, though Judy does it by hand. Salt is added and the cheese goes into the moulds. Next the cheeses are pressed and turned regularly until finally left to mature in a dark, humid environment. They must be aged for a minimum of two months before release and can store well for up to a year, though Judy's own preference is to eat the cheese at about five to six months. The flavour is mild and creamy with an increasingly nutty finish as the cheese ages.
Judy's production is extremely small and supply is limited but well worth the effort, so do seek it out. Her cheese is available at Skibbereen Farmers' Market, from Ying Yang, Market Street in Skibbereen, or directly from the farm.
She also makes Gjetost. 'It's really popular in Norway,' she told me. 'It's a sort of savoury fudge eaten on crisp bread' - strange but morish apparently! Goats' ricotta is another product she makes but what really tickled my tastebuds was the gorgeous medlar jelly which goes with Ardagh Castle Goat's cheese in a perfect marriage.
I was going to use Judy's cheese in a cooked recipe but quite honestly it is so good just eaten with crackers that I could not bring myself to cook with it. Instead I was delighted when she gave me the recipe for Medlar Jelly. I have taken the liberty of adding approximate metric measurements.
Medlar fruits are unusual both in appearance and in their ripening habits. They are very hard and inedible until they start to decay. They will rarely reach this stage by themselves on the tree and need to be harvested as late as possible in November. They should be left in a box in a cool dry place until they turn a dark reddish brown and become soft and juicy. This ripening process is known as 'bletting' the medlars. You can use them to make jams, jellies and medlar cheese.
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