If you’re on Instagram, there surely can’t be a better post to catch first thing every day than Velvet Cloud yoghurt’s regular ‘Good morning Mayo’ videos from their glorious West of Ireland farm, Rockfield Dairy.
Wild, oh-so-green and with a sense of the ancient that so defines the landscape of this part of the country, the location says it all really. Sheep have always been good at making the West of Ireland their home, adapting well to its varied, weather-beaten landscape, but the pasture in Mayo must be extra special, because the rich, creamy yoghurt this flock produces is especially delicious.
Contrary to what people might think at first, sheep’s milk is mild and sweet, and not at all redolent of the farmyard. Many start eating it because compared to cow’s milk, it’s generally easier on the digestion. It also has greater nutritional value and concentrations of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins.
But forgetting about all that for a second, the key attraction of Michael and Aisling Flanagans’ sheep’s yoghurt is not just its flavour but its unctuous texture and sheer versatility, as it can be used for dishes right across the spectrum, from sweet to savoury.
Chefs certainly can’t get enough of it. Here at Chapter One, our head pastry chef Darren Hogarty (Stan) is a true champion of Velvet Cloud. In fact, their yoghurt has played a starring role in many of his most popular desserts over the last few years, taking myriad forms and guises, from mousses to ice creams.
Here are just a few of his desserts celebrating this beautiful ingredient.
Recently we did a little interview with Michael and Aisling about Velvet Cloud, their farm and their future plans. And of course, about their sheep.
Where did the name come from? It’s so distinctive!
When we were starting out worked with a brand agency to come up with a brand look and feel as well as the name. They suggested many names but Velvet Cloud seemed to best represent the luxurious texture, yet healthy pure natural characteristics of the product
What made you think of using sheep’s milk for a yogurt product?
Sheep’s milk dairy products and sheep’s milk yogurt are commonplace in southern Europe. We lived and worked in Italy and France for over 10 years and always wondered why there were no Irish-made sheep’s dairy products in Ireland given we had so many sheep. When we returned to Ireland to live on Michael’s family farm we did some research and found there was a gap in the market and that we should give it a go.
Were there any psychological barriers you felt you needed to break down in order to sell sheep’s milk to an Irish audience who love their cow’s milk?
For Irish chefs there was no psychological barrier at all; they know and love good natural food and ingredients. With consumers it depends. If they are concerned about their digestive wellness or feel they have an allergy to cow dairy, then we have no barrier to overcome. These consumers often come looking to us asking about stockists of our sheep’s yogurt, or a nutritionist or a doctor has recommended sheep’s milk, so again there is no barrier. For other consumers who have never heard of sheep’s yogurt, sometimes they are afraid that it will taste of “sheep” or it might have the slightly stronger taste of goat’s milk but 100% of the time once they taste they are always surprised it tastes so “creamy and mild” .
How many sheep do you keep and what do they eat?
We have about 300 sheep on the farm and milk approx 100 of them at a time. They are on a grass-based diet, with grass outside in the fields approx. 10 months of the year depending on the weather, and if they are inside they are eating grass silage.
Do you have any favourite sheep/lambs?
Siobhan the sheep still has to be the favourite on the farm, as she was our star on the LATE LATE show two years ago, when we milked her live on TV and she took it all in her stride. She now even has her own twitter account @SiobhanTheSheep. Having said that we love them all as they have soft gentle sheepish characters.
You’ve developed a cheese in the last while – any other products in the pipeline? Like ice cream, perhaps?
For now we are focusing on cheese, yogurt and milk. This year is really the first year we have perfected our Rockfield by Velvet Cloud semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese which is aged for three months. Perhaps down the road we will look at other sheep’s cheeses.
what do you love most about sheep farming/milk production?
We get to meet so many creative people, (i.e. chefs) who to us are as much artists as they are chefs. We also love the supportive nature of the Irish chef community. Sometimes if a chef makes a dish with Velvet Cloud they will post it on social media, which is great for us because we get to see what happens to our product once it leaves the farm, but it and also helps us build awareness and spread the word about Velvet Cloud. Stan is an example of someone who is so creative with Velvet Cloud and also so generous in posting, supporting and helping us spread the word.
It’s also a family business and while it’s very hard work, everyone in the family including the kids are involved, so it’s great to be doing something with the entire family even if it’s working!!
how have chefs heard about you?
Social media has been hugely helpful (see comment above), and we also won a EuroToque award for Innovation in Dairy early on when we had just started, which introduced us to a fantastic network and certainly helped a lot.
Why do you think chefs love your yogurt so much? (we all know Stan – in here – is a HUGE fan!)
Sheep’s milk has a much higher solid content when compared to cow’s milk, so it has higher fat and higher protein. This makes it very versatile, it goes in both savoury and sweet dishes. We’ve learnt so much about menus since we started; for example, we would have never thought to put it with fish but it complements seafood really well, and it also works well with lamb and spiced foods. It’s a great alternative to creme fraiche, mayonnaise and cream. Because it contains just sheep’s milk and live yogurt cultures it is also natural; there is nothing added or nothing strained away so it suits healthy menus, and Free From menus too. Chefs tell me it “stands” on its own and has a creamy mouth feel and taste which is why it works so well in both sweet and savoury. They also love the farm to fork story.
And finally, how do you feel the food scene in Mayo has developed in the last while – for both producers AND consumers?
The Mayo food scene has really taken off recently, we now have some excellent producers whereas 10 years ago there were very few. For example there is Andarl Farm – free range pork, Achill Island Lamb, Cuinneog Dairy, Wildwood Vinegars, and a new one to the scene, Noo Chocolates.
Consumers are now lucky enough to have some excellent restaurants where they can sample these products, like House Of Plates and The Dining Room in Castlebar; Sage, Pantry and Corkscrew, Knockranny House and The Tavern in Westport; and of Course Ashford Castle and The Lodge At Ashford in Cong. These restaurants are all fanatical supporters of local Mayo producers but also speciality producers from all across the Island of Ireland. This means that Mayo consumers are exposed to a much wider range of locally produced products than they were in the past, which can be only a good thing for everyone.