When Siobhan Ni Ghairbhith gave up a well paid, pensionable job as a primary school teacher to produce St. Tola Goats Cheese, it was a case of swapping two legged kids for kids of the four legged variety.
However it was through her involvement with SuperValu that her passion became truly blessed. Born into a small farm in Inagh, a remote, rugged yet stunningly beautiful part of West Clare, Siobhan's love of goats and nature goes back to her childhood. "My parents used to bring me down to a goats farm owned by Meg and Derek Gordon, it was only three miles away"
Two of Siobhan's sisters suffered from asthma so her parents used to buy milk from them. Goats milk and goats cheese are very good for people with asthma and eczema. She used to get very excited because goats were very unusual in Inagh at the time, we were more used to cows and donkeys.
As so often happens, childhood influences come back into play later on in life. "It was 1998 and I was working as a primary school teacher in Galway, I remember thinking how great it would be if one of us could do something with Mum and Dad's farm"
"When we started we found SuperValu were very keen to support local producers. They came to us and told us they would love to help us by having our product available in their shops"
At the time Meg and Derek Gordon, Siobhan's neighbours since childhood, were contemplating retirement. They were wondering if someone would be interested in taking over the running and making of St. Tola goats cheese as they hadn't any children of their own. "I just remember thinking what an interesting possibility it was, I remember thinking this was something we could integrate with our own farm"
Like most farms in West Clare, her family farm was small and Siobhan didn't fancy the thought of going into the dairy business which most of her neighbours were in, because she simply didn't feel the potential was there. "I just saw St. Tola as an interesting alternative and something that was of real interest to me. I'd spent a lot of my childhood doing odd jobs on Meg and Derek's farm"
Siobhan took the plunge, gave up her teaching post and went to work with Meg and Derek on a full time basis so she could learn the skills of making goats cheese. Meg had learnt the skill from spending time in Normandy in Northern France. "Some people would have said I was mad to do so but I was passionate to do something with the family farm"
At the same time, Siobhan was busy getting her own farm ready, erecting a purpose built cheese house and a new housing and milking parlour for the goats. In July 1999 they moved the goats up to their farm. They did it very tentatively because animals, especially goats, are very sensitive creatures. Like humans they don't take change very kindly.
You can sense from Siobhan a real affection for her herd. The help and support of SuperValu has been crucial to the success of St. Tola cheese. "We've always worked with our local SuperValu supermarket, Gerry and Breid and now their daughter Jackie in Ennistymo, as well as Jones SuperValu in Milltown Malbay, and Queally's SuperValu in Kilrush and Killaloe. When we started we found SuperValu were very keen to support local producers. They came to us and told us they would love to help us by having our product available in their shops"
Six months ago, encouraged by SuperValu's interest in expanding their locally produced cheese range St. Tola and a group of Irish cheese makers got together to form Irish Cheese Direct so they could work directly with SuperValu to make their product available nationwide.
These included Cashel Blue, Carrigbyrne and Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese. "SuperValu's commitment to local producers has been absolutely fantastic. By partnering us with local supermarkets we have had the opportunity to get to know local managers and the people in charge of the deli counters"
We've found them incredibly amenable in organising promotions and instore taste testing. SuperValu believe that by helping to support local producers they're helping their own customers too.
As Siobhan says, "We were getting so caught up in the production of our cheese that we were missing out on the reality of the marketplace. SuperValu gave us the chance to meet customers face to face and find out what they liked and didn' t like.
When asked what it is about St. Tola cheese that makes it so special you can see that Siobhan is speaking from the heart. "Originally St. Tola cheese was made to a French recipe that Meg discovered in Normandy but what makes it unique is the grass that the goats are reared on, grass that' s unique to this particular part of West Clare. Here it is very peaty‚ in nature, it also contains a lot of natural herbs and flowers, like meadowsweet, honeysuckle and wild garlic which is perfect for small rudiment animals like sheep and goats. We' re also just south of the Burren so we have limestone elements in the land as well, even our farm's proximity to the wild Atlantic has a bearing. St. Tola is also very much a handcrafted product"
"We were getting so caught up in the production of our cheese that we were missing out on the reality of the marketplace SuperValu gave us the chance to meet customers face to face and find out what they liked and didn't like"
As Siobhan says "It's not just a matter of pressing a button at one end and the cheese coming out the other. We make the cheese in small batches, which is very different to the way it's done in France where they have much bigger production facilities. We make it in small batches every day, with the milk from that day. The moulds we use are hand crafted and we then fill them by hand. We also do very little interfering with the curd because the less you interfere with the curd the lighter and fluffier the cheese"
As for the future, Siobhan's enthusiasm and dedication shines through."Our vision is the long term sustainability of our farm and our food products for the health and benefit of everyone concerned, which includes the animals that graze on our land, the land itself and the people who consume our products"
St Tolas believe that taste, sustainability and the health giving benefits of their products are becoming more and more important to consumers, not just in the local community but in the rest of Ireland too. That's why they want their food made more available to more people. SuperValu is helping them to make that possible by transforming them from a niche product to a product for everyday use.
"We are very happy to be associated with SuperValu. They have helped us grow our business, production and workforce over the last year significantly"
As Ray Kelly, Marketing Director of SuperValu says,
"We believe that if the quality is right, no company is too small. What we try to do is nurture them so that their business is based on sound commercial principles without compromising the quality of their produce"
"The way we see it is that by helping indigenous Irish companies, big and small, we're also giving our customers a better quality product, at great value, as well as making a positive contribution to the Irish economy"