One of the great business success stories in Galway has to be the rise and rise of the Sheridan brothers, who began selling cheese from a small stall at the Saturday market, to become a national brand, with products selling in major British food stores, and across the continent.
Kevin and Seamus Sheridan hadn’t a clue about the kind of good food that people would pay to eat, let alone know one cheese from another. Yet some gene in their bodies guided them through a series of trial and error until eventually everything slipped into place. Their main ingredient was not science or marketing skills, but passion!
Kevin and Seamus are Dublin city born and bread. Home food was augmented by a small city garden in Portobello, beside the Grand Canal. Their sense of taste, and the smell of the land began to develop during long summer holidays at their mother, Maura’s, home on the Inishowen peninsula, in Donegal. Their days were spent milking cows, turning hay and digging turf, picking hedgerow gooseberries and raspberries, and collecting periwinkles on the sea-shore. Later they realised that their dad, who was a great hill -walker, who brought them on long rambles during which he taught them to respect the farmers' land they crossed, to enjoy the animals in the field, and to glimpse the farming world through the seasons. Long before the concept of sustainability, and the preservation of natural habitats became an accepted part of our thinking, they learned their first lessons in understanding the gift of food from natural husbandry.
Attracted to Galway in the 1970s Seamus and his partner Sara opened a small coffee shop, which became The Blue Restaurant. Food was prepared and served more with a dollop of enthusiasm than to any Cordon Blu standard.
One day Harriet Leander arrived like Mary Poppins. She showed them how to use the natural ingredients that we have locally. She walked into their restaurant, and emptied a bag of mussels and scallops into the sink. She said she liked what they were trying to do, but for heaven’s sake use what God has generously provided on our shores. Harriet is something of a legend in Galway.
She spent a wandering life cooking with women in rural Greece, Morocco and Italy; and for 15 years delighted diners with her imaginative cooking at Nimmo's, now Ard Bia. Then one day she flew away.
But not before the Sheridans (Kevin had joined in the fun in the meantime ), and their friend Terry Barman, changed their restaurant to Food Nation, where their big innovation was to offer a selection of Irish made cheeses instead of dessert.
That small fridge of cheese grew into the strangest shop in Kirwan’s Lane, that Galway had ever seen. First of all it was freezing cold once you walked inside. Big, fat wheels of cheese, rested, not on squeaky glass shelves that you’d see in a pharmacy, but on clean, raw, planks of wood, with the bark still showing. The smell was like nothing I’d smelled before. It smelt yeasty, earthy, and nutty; as if it was a secret language that described the flavour and aroma of cheese, which was interpreted by a grinning Seamus and Kevin. The handed out tiny curls of cheese to taste, and the crowds of shoppers grew.
'Brown bread' cracker
So did their business. A stall in the market grew into their shop in Church Yard Street, to two locations in Dublin, and a Walt Disney-style old railway station in County Meath for storage. Virtually all Irish cheesemakers are represented as well as the leading brands of Britain and Europe.
Other things happened too. Not satisfied with the cheese biscuit available, and remembering how delicious their mother ’s brown soda bread tasted with cheese, or anything, on top, they set about looking for a good biscuit maker. Richard Graham-Leigh from West Cork was their man. Using only three ingredients, all locally sourced, Sheridan’s 'brown bread' cracker…is just that: a cracker! Not only did Marks and Spencer snap them up to sell in all their stores, but I saw recently in a Jamie Oliver’s London shop and restaurant, Sheridan’s Cheese Biscuits piled high. The only cheese biscuit on sale in his busy shop.
With the help of journalist Catherine Cleary, the Sheridans tell their story in an interesting book, and guide to Irish Cheese makers*, just out in time for Christmas. It is full of advice on buying, storing and, if you want to, how to make your own cheese. It traces the link between our early ancestors as they ceased their wanderings, and settled down to farm the land and to raise cattle and goats for food and comfort. The brothers conclude by remarking that they have been ‘blessed with a place ( Galway ) in an amazing community. It is a community of customers, employees, food producers, farmers, chefs, and the fraternity of cheesemakers in Ireland and across the world.
‘The cheeses that carry the resonance within them of the authentic interaction of people with the land are more than just foods we eat or commodities to be traded. They carry with in them to stories of human survival for thousands of years, and hold one of the small threads of hope for the survival of the human connection to our land.’
I feel that Galway is happy too to have Sheridans about the place.
NOTES: The Sheridans Guide to Cheese, by Kevin and Seamus Sheridan with Catherine Cleary, published by Transworld Ireland, on sale €19.99