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An Irish Chef in France - Remembering Veronica Steele

Veronica Steele in the mid 1980s

This month our man in the Languedoc, Martin Dwyer is Remembering Veronica Steele

Veronica Steele, who died last month was indeed one of the most important innovators in the food revolution of Ireland. The story of how she, virtually single handedly, reinvented the cheese industry is now well known, how an almost chance tasting by Dermot Ryan and Myrtle Allen in Annie Goulding's restaurant in Sneem led to the wonderful flowering of Irish craft cheese.

At the end of the seventies and early eighties I was the chef in George Gossip's restaurant, Ballinakill House in Waterford. Myrtle Allen was an old friend of the Gossip family and as she was on the board of Newtown School in Waterford was a frequent visitor. I remember her coming into the kitchen to me and telling me about this most exciting new cheese called Milleens which was coming out of West Cork.

For our holidays in 1980 Síle and I decided to go camping in Allihies and during that holiday we called in to see the place where this new cheese was being made. As soon as Veronica answered the door Síle and she recognised each other, they had both attended Scoil Caitriona in Dublin and, while not in the same class, Veronica was in the same class as Síle's sister Una.

That factor, in typical Irish fashion, kick started our friendship. I remember that I was determined to put Milleens on the Cheese Board in Ballinakill House and this we managed for a few months with a complicated delivery system which involved (as I remember it) using CIE, the national transport company, as the courier.

Milleens

Shortly after I remember Milleens began to develop a distribution system and by the time I had moved through other restaurants in Waterford we could get it delivered by a specialised food courier or buy it in the excellent (but now long closed) Chapmans on the quay in Waterford.

When I became Chief Commissioner of the Irish branch of Eurotoques in 2005, after we had sold Dwyers Restaurant in Waterford, Veronica (who was in the process of passing on the making of Milleens to her son Quentin) and I would meet up as we attended various meetings and conferences throughout the country.

In what was probably 2006 we met together as we were both speaking at a meeting about New Irish Food Products at Castle Leslie in Co. Monaghan. I remember Veronica nabbing me for a lift back to Dublin after the talks and so we had the time (unusual in both of our lives) to have a couple of hours chat with just the two of us. It was then that she told me the story about John Ehle

When Veronica started her cheese making she found it extremely difficult to find a book of instructions to help her on her way. She could find various leaflets which had recipes but it wasn’t until she found John Ehle’s book on the cheeses of France and England that she found something (this quote from her, is in Colman Andrews book “The Country Cooking of Ireland) which “told her what cheese was”.

Because she had found the Ehle book so useful she used it as her bible of cheese and if she was contacted by anyone to recommend a book to start them off in the cheese business she would guide them to it.

Then she told me that one day, about twenty years after she had first read Ehle’s book, she had been in Allihies in her house when she heard a knock at the door and there was a middle aged gentleman outside - it was the same John Ehle.

“I have come to see you” he said ”because I want tell you of the amazing rise in the sale of my book over the last few years, not just here and in Britain but in America also.” When he had asked his publisher to explain this they too said that they were intrigued and had discovered that it was her recommendations which had spurred this rise.

“So” he said “I decided that I should come to see you in person to thank you for this” This story is one of the reasons why I think that Veronica had a huge influence not just in the risorgimento of the craft cheese industry here in Ireland but also in Britain and the States.

I want to finish on a purely personal note, I have a Facebook friend here in France who is from Beara but now lives in Paris. She was at home at Christmas and bumped into Norman, Veronica’s husband. My name came up in conversation and Norman told my friend that Veronica had been full of plans to come and stay with us in Le Presbytere just around the time that her horrible disease was diagnosed.

This is sad, I would love to have had Veronica and Norman stay with us here, her pioneering work and her great renown as a cheese maker lay very lightly on her shoulders. She had a great sense of humour and had wonderful witty turn of phrase and any visit from her would have been a pleasure. She will be missed.

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Martin & Sile DwyerMartin Dwyer started cooking professionally over 40 years ago in the legendary “Snaffles Restaurant” in Dublin. After a time in a Relais Chateau in Anjou and in “The Wife of Bath” in Kent he opened his own much acclaimed restaurant, “Dwyers”, in Waterford in 1989. In 2004 he sold this and moved south to France where he and his wife Síle bought and restored an old presbytery in a village in the Languedoc. They now run Le Presbytère as a French style Chambre d’Hôte. Martin however is far too passionate about food to give up cooking so they now enjoy serving dinner to their customers on the terrace of Le Presbytère on warm summer evenings. Martin runs occasional cookery courses in Le Presbytère and Síle’s brother Colm does week long Nature Strolls discovering the Flora and Fauna of the Languedoc. 

Le Presbytère can be seen at: www.lepresbytere.net
email: martin@lepresbytere.net

Twitter: www.twitter.com/DwyerThezan

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