A little old-fashioned magic.
John Wilson meets the milkman whose traditional methods are bringing a taste of terroir to the milking parlour.
The Culture Of Milk
We Irish love milk.
The second highest consumers in the world after Finland, for many of us it is intrinsically linked to happy childhood memories, sipping a glass of delicious, nutritious, cold creamy milk with mum’s baking or downing a warming mug before bed.
For some, glass bottles were delivered daily to your door, sometimes even by horse and cart; others will remember drinking a warm creamy glass milked from a cow just minutes before. Our memories may differ, but the grasslands that dominate the Irish countryside remain a constant – lush green pastures that allow us produce some of the world’s finest milk, butter, cheese and yoghurt.
Milk has always been part of our culture, but we lost our way, according to Noel Barcoe of The Village Dairy. “Forty years ago, milk had real flavour, and it had unique flavours depending on where it came from. It all depended on the soil, the grass and the weather. Milk from Cork tasted very different to Donegal milk. But somehow, we lost the flavour.”
Noel started off life as a milkman, with a round delivering milk, cheese, yoghurts and other produce. “After the Celtic Tiger, myself and a group of other milkmen needed to reinvent ourselves.” Forming a buying group, they took on a premises on the Carlow Laois border. “I have always listened to customers, and they seemed very interested in where their milk came from and how it was made. We had all these artisanal cheese and butter companies but I saw nobody was doing milk.”
“I approached a few local farmers I had gone to school with. We installed the machinery for a little dairy – The Village Dairy – in Killeshin. We deliberately didn’t buy smart new machines, but old ones that don’t process the milk too intensely. It allows you to leave some the flavours in. We started off with 300 litres from two farmers five minutes down the road in 2014; now we are up to 30 thousand litres a week, mostly sourced from farmers very close to us. The three main ones are within 5 minutes of the dairy.” They source organic milk from two famers, and Jersey milk from another two. “Overall you can really taste the difference and people notice it.”
There were some teething difficulties; “People used to say, ‘Your milk goes sour’ and I’d say, ‘Of course it does! Fresh milk is meant to. Real fresh milk doesn’t keep 16-18 days’.” The Village Dairy now employs 18 and, so far, Noel hasn’t been tempted to diversify. “We will stick with milk for the moment and get that right first. We will keep it simple and let our milk do the talking.”
The Irish dairy business has seen huge changes in recent years, not just brought about by the abolition of milk quotas, but also through a growing interest in more sustainable local artisanal products. The Village Dairy is leading the charge in reintroducing Ireland to real milk and it seems likely that more will follow.
“The Village Dairy simply reintroduced the flavour to milk, the way it used to be. There is no reason that there shouldn’t be another six to ten other dairies doing this,” Noel offers. “The more the merrier, as far as I am concerned. There is no reason milk can’t be like cheese or meat and other foods that have the unique taste of the region they come from.”
The Village Dairy produces a variety of dairy products including Jersey milk and cream, organic milk and cream, fresh milk, low fat, skimmed milk, cream and buttermilk. They regularly win awards and are of course members of Good Food Ireland®.