‘When I think back now to when we got started – I don’t know how we did it really!’ says Jeffa Gill, of her career dedicated to making Durrus Farmhouse Cheese. As cheesemakers go, Jeffa is one of the big ones, a trailblazer who put West Cork produce on the map. Despite all the acclaim, Jeffa Gill is an unassuming lady who loves where she lives and what she does. As she says, back in the early days, she ran a farm in remote West Cork, milked cows, made cheese and raised two children -whilst still managing to have a social life! That energy and drive is what has made Durrus cheese the iconic farmhouse cheese it is – a handcrafted award winning product with consistent quality and continued succes over thirty odd years. Durrus reflects its place of birth in the upland valley of Comkeen, on the majestic Sheep’s Head Peninsula. The subtle nuances of taste and texture echo the wild beauty of this area, the passion and commitment of the cheesemaker, and the fresh diverse flavours of creamy milk from cows grazed on mountainside grass pastures, bathed by Atlantic sea mists. All the elements of environment and terrain of this region are represented in one beautiful mouthful of Durrus cheese.
Farming and cheesemaking was a natural progression for Jeffa, who comes originally from a farming background in Worcestershire, England. She found West Cork via Dublin, where she studied art and made lots of friends. She settled on this small farm, milking eight dairy cows and making cheese at the kitchen table. The first cheeses were just for family and friends. They liked it, so Jeffa started making a bit extra to sell to local shops. ‘We needed to make a living’, she says. Veronica Steele of Milleens is one of Jeffa’s longstanding friends. ‘Veronica really helped in the early days, she was already making cheese and gave me lots of encouragement. We’ve known each other since the sixties.’ , she says of one of the most famous cheesemakers in the world, and fellow farmhouse cheesemaker in West Cork.
As the popularity of Durrus rose, Jeffa supplemented the milk of her own cows with that from a neighbouring farm. ‘Durrus started as a hobby at first, but when it began to be exported to Neal’s Yard in London that was a very important step in production. Everything has grown up here around the cheese. In 1989, it became apparent it wasn’t worth keeping a small herd. We sold the cows and changed to milk from the farm which had been supplementing. I still use the same farm today, plus one other in the same parish. The dairy grew. I now have a modern, light and efficient dairy - on the side of a mountain!’ she says. So one may say everything has changed here over the years, and yet nothing has. Durrus is still made in exactly the same way, with the same care and attention to detail.
Swiss style copper cheese vats are used. Milk is from two local Fresian herds. Jeffa has access to milk from a winter and summer calving herd so cheese can be made all year round. Curds are handcut in the traditional way. The original 1979 recipe Durrus cheese has a semi soft consistency with pinky orange washed rind. Matured in the curing rooms on the farm and best eaten at between five and eight weeks old. Durrus Og is a smaller, younger version of the original. Aged for ten days only and in optimum condition between two and four weeks old. Dunmanus is the newest addition to the range, named from Dunmanus Bay on the Atlantic coastline. A semi hard raw milk cheese aged for a minimum of three months and gets better as it gets older. Enjoy it up to twelve months old. Durrus cheeses are found in the finest cheese shops and delis at home and in the UK. Also available straight from the farm, where you can view cheese being made midweek at around 11am. Customers are advised to phone first to avoid disappointment.