We are scouring an Irish town for lunch, the teenager and I, on a deadline but the one promising place is crammed. So we wind up in a jazzed-up pub with depressing soup and a chicken burger that’s middling to meh. It’s pricier than a nearby cafe. But I’d rather not eat coleslaw in a par-baked baguette with ham the colour and texture of a worryingly slow-to-heal wound.
It’s a sadly familiar scenario. Great cafes and restaurants exist in large centres of population, where there’s enough of a cohort of people who care about food to make it worthwhile for a business person to care about food.
But that ground is shifting as cafes in Irish cities become larks for trustafarians thanks to eye-watering rents. The silver lining of the urban squeeze is the opportunity for Irish towns to reverse a decline with the ripple effect of a brilliant cafe dropped into a shuttered main street.
The Cheese Press is a kind of wraparound service that's as much about creating community as it is about serving the country's best cheese toastie
When Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith opened the Cheese Press in the Clare town of Ennistymon more than two years ago it was assumed to be a summer thing: a tourists’ deli, for seasonal blow-ins seeking a hunk of something posh to put on the table in the holiday home after dinner.
But the Cheese Press has deeper roots. It’s a kind of wraparound service that’s as much about creating community as it is about serving the country’s best cheese toastie. Which they do as well, by the way.
The cafe sits across the road from Niamh Fox’s restaurant, the ray of sunshine that is Little Fox. These two women-led businesses help make this quirky town feel like it’s on the up.
We were down for the Burren Winterage weekend, waking to a river view and autumn colours. On a memorable Sunday afternoon I walked with hundreds of people up a tiny road behind farmer Aoife Forde and her 21 Limousin cows, all in calf, on their way up to winter pasture.
Now we’re ready to head home and have weighed up the pit stop options. It’s a no-brainer to lunch in the Cheese Press. The layout of tables is designed to create conversations with your fellow diners. Chairs and benches have crocheted covered scatter cushions. There’s a violin in its case and a bristling noticeboard on the wall, which sums up the half-mad stuff that goes on here seven days a week.
In the time we’re here Ní Gháirbhith will chat to children as Gaeilge, explain her work with a Mongolian charity whose beautiful sheep’s wool slippers (Christmas presents sorted: madeinmongolia.net) support women in dire poverty, and serve a cracking lunch, all without seeming to draw breath.
All the cheese and almost all the ingredients are Irish. The menu is plain speaking. No cheese names are lovingly sprinkled. A “cheese platter” includes “cow’s goat’s and sheep’s cheese” chutney, leaves and sourdough bread. There’s a bungee rope of slack right there into which you could slot rubbery factory versions. But here the cheese toastie is a thing on to itself.
It costs less than €6, is buttery toasted on the outside and filled with Coolattin cheddar, a raw milk cheese that’s aged for a year in its distinctive red muslin cloth. Cassie’s Bakery from the market in Moycullen makes the sourdough loaves. Putting this level of farmhouse cheese and properly fermented bread in a toastie outside of hipster brunch zones is a revolutionary act.
A vegan plate has great juicy olives, a freshly made hummus, nicely pickled artichoke hearts and great bread
Liam has a fried organic egg with perfectly spiced soft chorizo and a house sundried tomato paste that they make by rehydrating the tomatoes and blitzing them with 12-year old balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic, lemon and smoked paprika.
The salad leaves with their flavour dialled up all the way come from nearby Moy Hill farm, another business with regeneration at its heart. A vegan plate has great juicy olives, a freshly made hummus, nicely pickled artichoke hearts and more of that great bread. There are dolmades, juicy parcels of tangy rice wrapped in vine leaves from Moy Hill.
They have a yoga room for classes including children’s yoga, regular morning music sessions and it’s all part of the warm beating pulse of the Cheese Press. The market won’t fix Irish food and farming, any more than it has fixed housing or health. Believers such as Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith are doing the work. One marvellous cheese toastie at a time.
Lunch for five with sparkling Irish apple juice came to €58.30
- Food provenance Excellent. Owner Sinéad Ní Gháirbhith knows most of her cheesemakers and suppliers personally
- Vegetarian options Top notch
- Facilities Small, downstairs
- Wheelchair access ★★☆☆☆ Accessible diningroom but toilets are downstairs
- Music Nice