We Irish love milk. Apparently we are the second highest consumers in the world after Finland. Many of us have very happy childhood memories of sipping a glass of delicious, nutritious, cold creamy milk. For some, pint 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 lush green pasture is reckoned to allow us produce the finest milk, cheese, yoghurt and other dairy products.
The Culture Of Milk
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. He and a group of other milkmen formed a buying group with a premises in Killeshin on the Carlow Laois border. “After the Celtic tiger, we needed to reinvent ourselves. 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 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 now 30 thousand litres a week, mostly sourced from farmers very close to us. The three main ones are within 5 minutes of the dairy. We 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 people full or part-time.
So far, he has not been tempted to diversify into cheese or yoghurt. “We will stick with milk for the moment and get that right first – we have a few ideas with different types of milk.
But we keep it simple and we let our milk do the talking. We 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. 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.”
Like many businesses they were affected by Covid19. “Generally sales were better before Covid; almost all of our business was in food service –hotels and restaurants. We had to adapt and change quickly and look at different markets. We started door to door with some distributors, and began supplying some of the supermarkets. We supply Dunnes Stores with their Simply Better Organic Jersey milk which is going well. Overall about 75% of our business has returned.”
What's in the fridge?
The Irish dairy business has seen huge changes over the last few years, brought about by the abolition of milk quotas on 1st April, 2015. At the same time, interest in more sustainable local artisanal products has increased greatly. The Village Dairy has taken the lead in reintroducing us to real milk. It seems likely that more will follow. 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 at The Irish Food Awards and are of course approved members of Good Food Ireland®.