Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Introducing Sharon's Foodie Heroes: Glenilen Farm

On Monday, I travelled along the twisting country lanes of West Cork wondering just how you can get something as smooth and creamy as this:

From such an unassuming creature as this:

Ever since I set up my cupcake stall at Dingle Farmers' Market, I have developed a huge sense of respect for food producers. Until you have tried it for yourself, you have absolutely no idea just how much hard work is involved in producing large volumes of high quality and consistently delicious food. I am usually ready to collapse in an exhausted heap after I've done this for two days a week so I am full of admiration for those who do it on a full-time basis.

Two people who do just that are Alan and Valerie Kingston, whose Glenilen Farm was the destination I was aiming for at the end of those winding country roads. Here they are with some of their fabulously fresh produce:
They make the creamiest of yoghurts, farm-fresh butter, cheesecakes and mousses that burst with fresh flavour, the richest double and clotted cream and much more at their farm near Drimoleague in West Cork.

Arriving at the farm, I was warmly greeted by Valerie and introduced to the lovely Avril Twomey, pictured here to the left. I was ushered into the staff from and over some tea (served with raw milk) and freshly-made scones with jam, we discussed where the company has come from and where it hopes to go.

Glenilen Farm has been in Alan's family for generations but it wasn't until Valerie - who was also born into a West Cork farming family - married him that they started to make dairy produce.

Valerie had studied Food Technology at University College Cork and had set up a community cheese-making enterprise in Burkina Faso in Africa after she left college. Finding herself newly married in Drimoleague, she decided to use the skills she had learned in college and refined in Africa to make cheese from the raw milk produced by the farm's 55 Fresian cows.

She started with fromage frais and once she had mastered that, she moved on to making cheesecakes and yoghurts in her kitchen. Pleased with the results of her experiments, her next step was to set up a stall at Bantry's Farmers' Market. From there, it wasn't long before she had regular customers who loved her produce just as much as she did.

That was back in 1997 and what started as a small farmhouse kitchen enterprise has grown to become a business that now employs more than 20 people. It's a business with an ever-expanding product range too, thanks to Valerie who continues to experiment with new flavour combinations and recipes in her kitchen. And instead of farmers' markets, these products are now sold in shops all over Ireland and outlets including Tesco's in the UK.

Despite all of these changes, many aspects to life on Glenilen Farm remain the same. As Avril shows me around, I can't help but notice that this is still very much a traditional family-run farm. Chickens scratch and preen in the chicken coop. People trundle by with wheelbarrows. The family cat sidles up to visitors, always on the lookout for some fresh cream. And then there is the produce itself.

Alan and Valerie may have upped production but they have also stuck to their principles. They want their food to taste good and to retain its farmhouse-fresh quality. With this in mind, they have refused to introduce any additives or preservatives and they remain committed to the quality of their food.

This means that what they do still involves a lot of hard and hands-on work. Avril tells me about the blisters everyone had on their fingers back in the days when their yoghurt tops were still fitted by hand and describes the groans the staff still make any time there is a big order of butter, which still has a string that is tied by hand.
It seems these are sacrifices the staff are willing to make. What I spy of the production unit is a place where people seem to take palpable pride in their work.
"Everybody who works here is focussed on making our food taste good," says Avril. "We want it to taste fresh. That's why even when we use machines, we are still close to the food. We don't want to be distanced from it. We want to be close enough to see, smell and even taste it."
You can taste this passion and pride in their produce. Glenilen yoghurt is yoghurt as it was meant to taste; smooth and creamy and full of fresh and natural goodness. When you bite into a slice of Glenilen summer berries cheesecake, you can't help but relish the buttery biscuit base, the fresh whole berries and the full-fat creaminess of the cheese. Yum!

I came home from my day at Glenilen Farm laden down with goodies, some of which I've pictured here:
I've already eaten some of the yoghurt for breakfast. I spread some of the butter on my toast this morning. I've shared some of the cheesecake with friends. I've enjoyed every mouthful and am looking forward to many more.

Alan and Valerie and their team of 20 or so staff at Glenilen Farm represent so much of what is good about Irish food. Using traditional farming methods and age-old techniques of cheese, butter and cream making, they produce food that is fresh, natural and a joy to eat.

It was totally worth making the long and winding journey to Glenilen Farm.

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