With only days to go until the opening party for this year's Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest, it's hard to anticipate anything more exciting than the weekend ahead. As part of this electric lead in I'm thrilled to introduce John McKenna as my next guest blogger.
I was recently grading some papers submitted by students who had taken a Food Writing module as part of the creative writing course at U.C.C. My fellow tutors were Denis Cotter, luminary chef at Café Paradiso, and Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery school and, whilst Denis and myself met the students in classrooms, when they got to meet Darina it involved a day spent at the cookery school.
Of course, as first time visitors they were enraptured by the busy bustle and the discipline of the school. But one thing above all seemed to stand out for the students as they toured the many elements of the school: the dairy.
“This creamery woman quietly shared her treasures with us...”. “The dairy keeper whom you just knew, from the gnarled hands, worked hard every day but her face reflected a picture of contentment and commitment...”. “So many people are unhappy nowadays in their jobs that it was great to see someone proud of what they do...” “She looked like she should – in a completely happy way – always be there...”
In between marking the scripts, I collaborated with my wife, Sally, in making a short film for the Little Milk Co, which involved visiting three organic dairy farmers in counties Carlow, Waterford and Kilkenny, and visiting Helen Finnegan's cheesemaking room at Stoneyford, in Kilkenny, where Ms Finnegan and her team make an organic brie-style cheese for the Little Milk Co.
The mixture of the student's reception to the Ballymaloe dairy, and filming in the cheesemaking room in Stoneyford, brought back to me a truth about a true, artisanal dairy: it has its own rhythm, the rhythm of milk.
If you want to understand the many ways in which milk is a “magic liquid”, just visit a dairy. The timings are the timings of nature, not of modern man. As the rennet sets, it sets at its own pace: you wait for it, and the judgement as to when it is ready is done by experience, by touching, by cognition and recognition, by using the human skills of perception and sensory wisdom.
But at all times it is the milk that dictates the pace at which work can be carried out: the cheesemaker, you might say, assists the milk on its journey, not so much controlling it as cajoling it.
It is a fragile and delicate dance of partners: farmer and cows and grass; rennet and salt and milk; cheesemaker and intuition and time. This is the magic bestowed by the “magic liquid” and, as the students' scripts revealed, it is mesmerising.