Alan and Wendy Dempster, who farm just outside the Co Antrim town, are creating the unique cheese as part of a farm diversification project which has already seen the launch of Lamb Van, a ‘street food truck’ that specializes in a range of cooked snacks such as sausage rolls and burgers from their own meat.
The entrepreneurial couple converted a horse box into a fully functioning kitchen and are selling the lamb dishes at various venues around Northern Ireland. They are promoting the versatility of lamb, and selling only Northern Ireland Farm Quality Assured Lamb. They have linked up with some small retailers to sell their lamb creations, extending their reach from hospitality in to retail.
Wendy, a food marketing specialist with Northern Ireland’s biggest food distributor, is driving the cheese project with help from experts at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) at Loughry, near Cookstown.
CAFRE has a long and successful track record in supporting the development of innovative artisan cheese products. It’s a record that includes Kearney Blue Cheese at Castlereagh and Ballylisk of Armagh from Portadown. The college, in addition, was involved in the production of the original brie-style soft cheeses by the now closed Fivemiletown Creamery – Ballybrie and Ballyblue – as well as Cooneen goat’s milk cheese. Fivemiletown, a farmers’ co-operative, produced the first blue cheese in Ireland and the first smoked brie in Europe.
“We are planning a hard cheese using pasteurized milk from our own flock,” Wendy explains. “It’s an exciting idea we have been working on over many months that will further extend the activities and income of the farm. Lamb Van, which was also assisted by the CAFRE team, enabled us to gain experience and knowledge in retailing. We’ve moved on to develop packaged sheep meat products which are now being sold in several local delis.”
Wendy is among a host of artisan and start-up food company bosses to benefit from Loughry’s support for new products involving innovation vouchers which offer around £5,000 towards an agreed project with a university or college. Through a partnership approach, companies access support, specialist knowledge and practical skills required to help promote innovation, develop new products and systems to assist their business to grow.
“CAFRE’s support and knowledge about food, processing and other essentials such as nutritional information and packaging were immensely important to us in the development of Lamb Van and now the sheep’s cheese. It’s early days yet, of course, and we have a lot to do. We are both excited by what has been achieved thus far especially in terms of formulating a recipe for the cheese.
“We really couldn’t have managed without CAFRE’s expertise. The college’s knowledge of all aspects of cheese production is impressive and has been
While the Ballymoney couple’s sheep’s milk cheese will be the first in Northern Ireland when it is launched later this year, there are many successful producers of sheep’s cheese around the world. They include Feta in Greece, Roquefort in France, Spain’s Manchego and Ricotta of Italy.
There are three enterprises producing sheep’s cheese in the Irish Republic. The first, Cratloe Hills, was produced by Sean and Deirdre Fitzgerald on their farm in Brickhill, Co Clare in 1988.
Many local people have probably tasted these cheeses on holiday. In addition, the local artisan market has been developing steadily over the past decade and now features small batch producers which have won national awards for innovation, quality and outstanding taste. Their products are featuring increasingly on local cheeseboards as knowledge of the products grows.
Sheep’s milk is reported to contain far more fat, solids and minerals than cow’s milk, it is ideal for the cheese-making process and also resists contamination during cooling better because of its much higher calcium content. Sheep milk contains 4.8% lactose, more lactose than cow milk.
The novel cheese project reflects the passion Wendy and Alan share for promoting local sheep and lamb coupled with an awareness of the challenges facing the market in Northern Ireland.
Wendy continues: “Our interest in creating innovative products such as sheep’s milk cheese is based on our efforts to promote Northern Irish Farm Quality Assured Lamb within our local community, and also to encourage other farmers to reduce the high volume of lamb that we currently export. .
“We aim to increase sales at home by highlighting the health benefits and tremendous versatility of lamb and the sheep’s milk cheese. The cheese is a product that can be used regularly in the home and is also ideal for restaurant meals. It’s a really delicious product with enormous potential. And, of course, it’s a local product.”