Obituary: Veronica Steele

Doyen of farmhouse cheeses who rekindled industry

Veronica Steele: November 26th, 1947-January 4th, 2017. Photograph Stefan Syrowatka

Veronica Steele: November 26th, 1947-January 4th, 2017. Photograph Stefan Syrowatka

 

Veronica Steele, who has died at the age of 69, was the doyen of Ireland’s farmhouse cheese industry. While others before her may have produced home-made brie or cheddar on a domestic scale, she is acknowledged as the longest established producer of Irish artisan cheese.

At a time when the fledging movement was struggling to get off the ground, by producing Milleens (a washed-rind cheese that continues to ripen and soften for up to three months after being made and, on her advice, is best kept refrigerated and then allowed to come to room temperature before eating) she spearheaded the renaissance in cheese-making in the 1970s. She convinced the government to give dairy farmers the green light to make cheese and secured a better deal for dairy workers.

Blazing a trail for others to follow, it is no exaggeration to say that she put Irish cheese on the international map. A year ago she was honoured with a best of the decade Good Food Ireland award.

When Ireland’s first Michelin-star chef, Declan Ryan, owner of the former Arbutus Lodge in Cork, put her Milleens cheese on the restaurant’s cheeseboard, it got a rave review in the Observer for its quality and showed Ireland could more than match traditionally renowned countries such as France in cheese-making.

Despite suffering for many years from a rare and debilitating condition called multiple system atrophy, she continued making cheese until her son Quinlan took on the role in 2003. She was conscious of cheese’s value as a rich and healthy food source, and even when she was ill, went to Ethiopia to help introduce new ways of making cheese there.

Outspoken

Paying tribute to her achievements, Declan Ryan described her as “a gregarious and outspoken woman, once met, never forgotten”. He added: “Veronica was so generous that she had an open day every week so that others could learn the skills and so we have a renaissance of farmhouse cheese-making in Ireland which has greatly enhanced our reputation as a food nation.”

Her story is the stuff of romance and worth retelling.

As a philosophy student at UCC, she met her husband, Norman, of Trinity College, Dublin, when he gave a lecture on Ludwig Wittgenstein in Cork. He later recalled that “she was just about the only person in the audience not wearing a nun’s habit or a dog collar”. After settling on a small holding in Eyeries on the rugged Beara peninsula, they married and reared four children on their small farm. The most liberal of mothers, she never interfered in their lives.

In a bid to boost the income from the milk of their small herd of Friesian cows she went to the library to research the history of Irish cheese-making, thus embarking on a journey which took her back to a time when Irish monks reintroduced the art of cheese-making to Europe.

They began to make Milleens in 1976. But, as her diary shows, it was very much a work in progress. The first entry in June reads: “2 cheeses – one bummer, one good but grated”. The next was “cheddar, larded and waxed, fell and wax broke!” Another cheddar was “stolen by dog!” After Port Salut came gorgonzola and when it was followed by two small emmenthal the entry simply exclaims “Wow”. Then, on August 11th came the breakthrough “1 extra large Milleens.”

She wrote: “I had abandoned the cheddar and gorgonzola and emmenthal and Port Salut and resigned myself to this apparition, this changeling that kept impeding my every attempt to defeat Switzerland and Italy and France on the road to world domination”.

Bord Bia stated, “When Veronica first started making this cheese in 1976 . . . she did not realise that it would be known as the cheese where the story of modern Irish farmhouse cheese making begins.”

Veronica Steele is survived by her husband Norman, children Susan, Jenny, Kate and Quinlan.