Reigning from the Burren in County Clare is St Tola Goat Cheese. Established in the 1980’s, St Tola have been providing the people of Ireland with delicious, fully traceable goats cheese for decades. With a passion for sustainable farming, authenticity behind their brand and genuinely producing high quality goats cheese, it’s no wonder they have won an abundance of awards!
We had a chat with Siobhan Ní Ghairbhith, owner of St Tola Goat Cheese, who are part of the Euro-Toques Ireland community of Irish producers.
Can you tell me about your own background in the food industry?
I started working in the food industry when I took over the creation of St Tola cheese on our family in farm in 1999 from Meg and Derrick Gordon, our neighbours who had been producing St Tola cheese since the early 1980’s .
What inspired you to set up your business? Did you notice a gap in the market?
I was inspired to set up my business as I was looking for something sustainable to do with our family farm that my parents and grandparents left my partner John and I in 1999. I could see from working with Meg and Derrick prior to that for a few years in my role in marketing food products from the Shannon region, that there was demand for St Tola cheeses, which were very seasonal at that time.
How did you set up the business and how has it been growing over time?
I set up the company Inagh Farmhouse Cheese ltd with my partner John Harrington in 1998 and we negotiated the purchase of the St Tola brand from The Gordons that year. I trained with them full time before our business began on our farm in March 1999. The business has grown over the years from being a seasonal, 5 month business with a herd of 70 goats employing 2 people and producing 3 types of cheese, to becoming an all year round business with 300 goats, employing 10 people, producing 10 types of cheese and growing the production tenfold over the last 24 years.
Where do you source the ingredients used to make your product?
99% of our ingredients is the Irish goats milk, 50% of which we produce ourselves on our family farm and the other 50% we purchase from Irish goats milk producers.
Can you tell me about some of the benefits associated with your product?
Our cheeses are totally traceable from farm to fork. The only additives or preservatives we use in the production of our cheese is sea salt. Goats milk cheeses are very healthy products especially for those with weak immune systems, eczema or asthma.
How has working with Euro-Toques Ireland impacted your business?
Working with Euro-Toques Ireland over the last 24 years has had a positive impact our business as its members have the same ethos as ourselves – producing honest, healthy food. We also get the opportunity to show our new products to its members when we attend Euro -Toques Ireland events. Working with Euro-Toques has helped us grow and evolve over the years.
What has been your favourite part of working with Euro-Toques Ireland?
My favourite part of working with Euro-Toques Ireland is getting to spend time with individual member chefs to share ideas and good food with them.
How important has social media been for you in spreading the word?
Social media has become very important for spreading the word since I first started using it 11 years ago. It’s the way most people find out about what happening in the world, in the food scene and many chefs use it as a way for communicating so I get to see their creations and get ides from them.
What makes your product unique?
Our cheese are unique for a number of reasons. We are a diminishing group of Irish cheesemakers who produce our cheeses from milk that comes from our own farm. Our cheeses therefore have true provenance as they reflect the environment in which they are made. For example, our St Tola Ash Log and St Tola Karst cheese, which are reflective not only in how they look but in their flavours of the peaty, slightly salty land just south of the Burren where our farm is. Karst is the word used to explain the unique landscape of the Burren and we have named our newest cheese after this landscape. We are one of only a few cheesemakers who produce raw milk cheese here in Ireland, being part of the Irish Raw milk cheese Slow Food Presidia .
We age our soft cheeses like no one else in Ireland developing a geotricum rind and promote the consumption of these aged cheeses as opposed to just producing extremely mild soft cheeses, which offer little differentiation from one fresh soft goats cheese to another. We also use much less salt than other cheesemakers so as not to compromise on taste for the sake of extended shelf-life.
Where can people get your product?
A list of our customers are on our website www.st-tola.ie. Our raw milk cheeses are available in Independent retail shops throughout Ireland and Britain. Our fresh cheese made from pasteurised milk are available in multiple Dunnes Stores, SuperValu and TESCO’s .
Are there any other small Irish food producers you admire?
I admire Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery who has stayed small but dedicated herself to wild fish.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced since going into business?
The biggest challenges have been paying the bills and keeping our employees paid through all the various crises over the last 24 years.
What do you feel is your biggest achievement to date with this business?
My biggest achievement is employing 10 people on our 60 acre farm in rural North West Clare.
Could you ever have imagined doing anything else with your life?
Yes, I could have imagined following other paths in my life and hope to do so in the future. I started off as a primary school teacher and could have stayed in that career if it hadn’t been so limiting in the early 1990’s. Education has always been at the core of what I do. Travel broadens the mind and I would like to travel more in the future and not be so tied to the business.
What does the future hold for your business?
I feel that we are now at maximum capacity from a production point of view and it’s getting more and more challenging to run a profitable small business in this country. My focus will be on continuing to produce high quality St Tola goats cheese. Less is more has always been my philosophy and I strongly believe in putting quality over quantity.
Anything further to add?
The measure of success in business should not be on the size of one business or profits of the business but should be measured on the health and well being of those involved in the business and its impact on the physical environment in which it operates.