Hazel Dunn with some of her goats at Fivemiletown Creamery, Ltd.
Pioneering Northern Ireland dairy goat farmer Hazel Dunn is seeing 12 years of hard work pay off in collaboration with Fivemiletown Creamery, Ltd., that has created an innovative oak-smoked goat cheese exclusively for the flagship four-star Ramada Plaza in Belfast.
The handmade cheese is being used as an exclusive signature product for a new gourmet restaurant, The Green Room, at the Ramada Plaza. Hotel company Andras House, Ltd., also operates a string of Ibis, Holiday Inn Express, and Days Hotel properties across Northern Ireland.
It is an achievement for Dunn, who, when she began breeding goats in 1999, was one of the first to do so in Northern Ireland. The Dunn family has been farming on 55 acres near the picturesque village of Brookeborough, seven miles west of Fivemiletown, since 1940.
Dunn was a pioneer and, as with all market leaders, her biggest problem came at the start, in finding an outlet for the niche goat milk market her herd was producing. Getting the goats and milking them was never a problem.
After a lot of hard work, she built her herd of Saanen, Toggenburg, Alpine, and Nubian goats to about 400 head. She usually has 300 in production and uses a milking parlor built by Shropshire-based Fullwood, Ltd., that handles 24 goats at a time.
The goats supply an average 6.3 pints (three liters) of milk a day, all of it shipped to the Fivemiletown Creamery.
"She supplies all the goat milk we need," said Fivemiletown sales manager Kevin McManus.
The creamery is a farmer-owned cooperative that traces its origins back to 1898 as a fresh cow milk supplier. It diversified into cow milk cheese production in 1972 and then into goat cheeses in 1999.
For Dunn, the decision 13 years ago by Fivemiletown Creamery to begin producing goat milk cheese came at just the right time.
McManus said the decision was made to expand into goat cheese production because it offered the potential to differentiate the creamery from the competition in terms of being a forward-thinking and innovative company.
"No other dairy companies in Ulster were producing goat cheese at the time, and this still remains true today," he said.
Hazel Dunn became the creamery’s only milk supplier and still retains this exclusive role, as her quality milk contributes to the award-winning cheeses.
"Both quality and quantity depends on a number of factors—pedigree goats combined with good dairy management," she said.
"We breed from only our best animals and have introduced a mixture of colored and Nubian goats to our herd. Then, of course, you must give them only top quality feed. If there is any variation at all, they’ll tell you in the milking parlor very quickly."
Hazel loves her work. "The joy of working with goats is that they all have character," she said. "They’re intelligent, gentle and extremely sociable. Perfect for me really."
Using her milk, the creamery makes two types of goat cheese with 10 different product formats derived from these. They include Fivemiletown Goats Cheese Log (natural and with mustard seed); O’Reilly’s Goats Cheese (plain/mustard/chive); Boilie Goats Cheese Pearls in Oil (sleeved tub for commercial retail, glass jar for high end retail and catering tubs for food service); and Cooneen Goats Brie (wedge and deli wheel).
The three most popular varieties are the Boilie sleeved tubs, the Cooneen wheels, and natural Goats Logs.
"We are working on developing new varieties, but they are being kept under wraps until July," McManus said.
The creamery exports its goat cheese to the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom mainland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the United States, and Hong Kong.
Travelers making the road trip to or from the exotic west coast of the island of Ireland can buy the cheese direct from the factory shop in Fivemiletown, 65 miles west of Belfast. The village has a population of a little more than 1,128.
"All our soft cheeses are made slowly, in small batches by hand," master cheesemaker Ian McIntosh said. "I can tell instinctively how the cheese will perform when I cut the curds. On paper making cheese might seem like a relatively straightforward thing to do. In reality it is a much more skillful and instinctive process."
The exclusive supply deal with Andras House came about because of Fivemiletown’s reputation for top quality cheeses.
"Couple this with the increasing demand for locally produced products, and Andras House recognized our offering as holding key credentials most suitable for the launch of their new Green Room restaurant, which places a large focus on locally produced seasonal produce," McManus said.
Fivemiletown Creamery sales manager Kevin McManus (left) and Graham Burns, head chef of The Green Room at Ramada Plaza with the signature The Green Room smoked goat cheese.
It helped that the creamery regularly picks up awards for its products.
"Our goat cheese products have collected 26 awards in the last three years at prestigious events such as the World Cheese Awards, Nantwich International Cheese Awards, Great Taste Awards, and the British Cheese Awards," McManus said.
Artisan cheese makers at Fivemiletown created the unique oak smoked goat cheese for the Ramada, Northern Ireland’s biggest conference and convention center with 120 luxury bedrooms. The new signature cheese draws on the creamery’s extensive experience in the production of its Cooneen brand goat cheese and its oak smoked cheddar. Both are sold worldwide.
The cheese was cured in the creamery’s own smokehouse using oak wood chips sourced from a local supplier using conservation techniques. The new cheese will carry The Green Room brand and is the first oak-smoked goat cheese made in Ireland.
"The collaboration will see a number of signature cheeses developed for the group and its restaurants," McManus said.
He says supplies of quality goat milk are scarce in Ireland and the UK.
"Hazel Dunn is one of the best producers in Ireland, but the growing demand on goat milk products is placing a strain on small producers across the land," he said. "As demand grows, we may be forced to look at other alternatives to secure the supply needed."
The creamery’s main products are bulk cheddar cheese and cheddar curd.
"The goat cheese business helps us in that we can add a lot of value to the end products and thus help us achieve recognition for our efforts in specialty cheese production," McManus said.
"Despite growing year on year, it is presently a small part of our total operation."