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Memories of Veronica Steele

Veronica Steele

Moved by Cork’s recent celebration of ‘Milleeens Week’, food writer Margaret Hickey shares her personal memories of the late great cheesemaker, Veronica Steele

31st August 1978, 2 fatty Milleens, 2 gals each. Ladled into unlined moulds. Both moulds collapsed. ladled slices of curd back in. Cld be interesting.

Extract from her cheese maker's diary.

In early January this year, after an illness borne with typical courage and humour, the legendary cheese maker Veronica Steele died. But she left behind a legacy and I was moved to pay tribute to her in a week when all across Cork, in the places of good food and good cheer that are the Character Cafés, Milleens Week was being celebrated.

It wasn't in Ireland that I first came across Milleens cheese - it was in Paris. Myrtle Allen opened La Ferme Irlandaise, a shop and restaurant specialising in Irish food, in 1981 and it was the toast of le tout Paris.

Even my most chauvinist French friends had to admit that this was a cheese worthy of praise, and when I then moved to London I searched it out in the halls of good food - Neal Street and Paxton & Whitfield among them.

During my time as an editor at Country Living magazine, I wanted to spread the word about the excellence of Ireland's food , so I commissioned a piece by the only begetter of Milleens - the indomitable Veronica Steele. Readers wrote in about her piece, thrilled with the vigour, humour and honesty of her story. She began by telling me that one day she was on the bus with her youngest child, who asked where they were going. 'Why, darling, we're going to Maher's,' she replied. The child's eyes grew wide. 'We're going to Mars! On a bus!' They were, in fact, on their way to Maher's in Cork, and when they got there, they found a cheese that was wrapped in strips of muslin, like bandages. As a chunk was cut off with the cheese wire, you could smell and see that it was the real thing, made from the milk of a cow and, what’s more, a cow that had fed on the rich grass of Co Cork. When the word got out that this cheese was no longer to be made, Veronica couldn't allow there to be a vacuum, and so she determined to step into the breach.

Her husband Norman explains that with too much milk in the summer, they also needed to make cheese, and so Veronica obliged with a cooked curd cheese, Beara. Norman wasn't easily satisfied, though. 'I said, Come on! More exciting! I want something really special.' And so Veronica came up with Milleens.

Right from the start, luck played a part in the cheese's huge success. The Steeles sent it up to a pal cooking in Sneem, and the first night Milleens went to the table was the night that Declan Ryan of Arbutus Lodge was there. He made short work of the wondrous farmhouse cheese presented to him. And the very next night none other than Myrtle Allen sat down and was equally smitten. According to Norman, Mrs Allen said, 'This is the most exciting day of my professional life - a really good Irish cooked cheese.'

Veronica makes typically humorous reference to this in her cheese maker's diary. 'Rumour has it that there was a full eclipse of the Sun and earth tremors when the first Milleens was presented on an Irish cheese board.'

Many years later, when I was travelling around Ireland, researching for my book Ireland's Green Larder, I arranged to go down to the Beara peninsula to meet Veronica and Norman in their home and to visit the dairy.

Unfailingly hospitable, they gave me a magnificent lunch and when I admired a particularly striking piece of art on wall, a great slab of rusty metal, Norman said, with a perfectly straight face, 'Yes, and the extraordinary thing is that there's a barn out there with a hole in the wall of exactly the same dimensions as this!' No one showed they were laughing inside.

As I was leaving, I was introduced to a tall young man called Quinlan. And now it is he who is bringing to the making of Milleens all the passion and attention to detail that is required if you are to keep up the extraordinarily high standards that his mother brought to it. She was a free spirit who married discipline with a creative flair to make a classic cheese. And she also made an enduring impression on anyone who met her. She is greatly missed.

There is an entire chapter on White Meats (all things dairy) in my forthcoming book, Ireland's Green Larder (more info through link below).

My book Ireland's Green Larder is currently being crowd funded and publication will be spring 2018. To see a short video and description of the book, click on this link. 

https://unbound.com/books/irelands-green-larder

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Margaret Hickey

As deputy editor and food and drink editor at Country Living magazine, Margaret Hickey commissioned a range of food writers and chefs, including Richard Corrigan, Nigel Slater, Rick Stein and Darina Allen. In her freelance writing career she wrote on food, drink and travel for most of the national British press, including The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Times.

In 1999 she moved to Ireland to complete a book commissioned by UK publisher Kyle Cathie. Irish Days, a collection of oral histories, received coverage in both Ireland and the UK and she was interviewed about it on the Pat Kenny Show, plus the TV3 morning show. The paperback version came out in 2003.

She has lectured at University College, London and University College, Limerick on the subject of oral history and had a weekly food and cookery slot on Premier Radio in London during the 1990s.

She is currently Vice Chairperson of Portumna Arts Group, which runs Shorelines, an annual arts festival, and for many years she has been a judge at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival.

 

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