When Life Gives you Lemons
The highlight of many a tourists’ visit to the West of Ireland is often a trip to the Aran Islands. As such, you may guess that the primary income of the residents of Inis Mor is from the visitors to their little paradise. The only way to access the island is by boat or plane. During the summer season waves of people came with every ferry and with each arrival tourists swarm to view the island, hiring bikes and taking bus tours. They all need to be fed and watered and costs can be high, as everything not produced on the islands must be brought in by the ferry.
Culturally, the Aran Islands were for centuries very isolated from developments in other parts of Ireland and Western Europe, and thus reliant primarily on their own resources for both entertainment and news. They have a strong tradition of self-sufficiency in a very harsh environment with the land consisting of unyielding slabs of limestone, resistant to traditional farming methods. Although the island is only two miles wide and nine miles long, there are 5,000 miles of man-made stone walls. By mixing layers of sand and seaweed on top of rock they create fertile soil to grow potatoes and other vegetables and to provide grazing grass for cattle and sheep. These in turn provided wool and yarn to make patterned hand-knitted jumpers, shawls and caps, hand-woven skirts, trousers, jackets, pampooties and hides for the iconic island currachs for fishing and trading with the mainland.
Historically, many of the islanders eked out a living from the sea. While there are still a couple of fishing boats moored in the harbour, the industry has declined. Many former fishermen drive tourists around the island in minibuses instead. This was Gabriel Faherty’s story until a short while ago. A strong history of fishing ran in his family but with the industry being served so badly by EU regulations, he was forced to abandon his family legacy and earn a living by other means.
Today, Gabriel and his wife Orla are the latest of Inismore’s indigenous entrepreneurs. Faced with the decline of the fishing industry, the sporadic nature of the tourism industry and with four young kids to feed, the solution for this couple was, surprisingly, even more kids. Goats to be exact. Putting all of their resources on the line, the couple built a goat farm and dairy on the island and now have started to produce cheese from the milk. The dairy is equipped with a 1,000 litre vat, press, moulds and although still in the start up phase, it has the potential to soon supply all of the local islands with their own farm made produce – goat milk, goat cheese, goat yogurt or ice cream or goat fudge, maybe even goat milk soap in the bathrooms.
The soft creamy cheese is a ‘made on the Island’ product that will have a ready market when the tourists are around supplying the restaurants and bars. Using another freely available local product, seaweed, they are developing flavored varieties including sea lettuce and dillisk. Goats are ideally suited to island life where the climate is milder and drier than on the mainland, the air clean, fresh and pollution-free. This old-world staple is fast becoming the ‘new cow’, with much support from Irish foodies and environmentalists. It is a way for people to eat tasty foods, locally grown and humanely raised. Unlike the cattle industry, there aren’t any huge, industrialised goat farms.
You can keep an eye out for these products in our own McCambridges where I had sampled it earlier in the week and met the producers. Natalie McCambridge had kindly given me some samples to take home, so since life handed me goats cheese, I made a baked cheesecake. It made a lovely substitute for the usual ‘Philadelpia’ and was a rich and creamy dessert, not a bit ‘goaty’ as it can often be accused of. The flavored ones made a lovely dip for a salty cracker. On the islands, with so many stories of emigration family and the struggle to survive in a harsh environment, Gabriel and Orla are part of a new generation who are sustaining their home by contemporising, without compromising its heritage, and that must be applauded.
Aran Islands Goats’ Cheese / Cais Gabhair Arainn, Oughill, Aran Islands, Co. Galway. Contact (087) 2226776 or (087) 8635327
First published in The Galway Advertiser, 2014.