A pinch is the penalty for failing to wear green on Saint Patrick's Day, but if you're looking to put together an Irish cheese platter to celebrate the holiday in your home, you would be smarter to avoid the green cheese and look at more traditional hues. It turns out the most recognizable green cheese, Sage Derby, is actually an English creation - not at all appropriate for celebrating your Irish roots!
There is a wealth of Irish cheeses that are readily available in the Washington area, including a mildly salty blue, a range of traditional Irish cheddars, and a pair of unique cheeses streaked with a Guinness-like porter and Irish whiskey from the heart of County Limerick. Any (or, if you're like me, all) of these provide a great taste of the Emerald Isle's rich cheese-making tradition and a colorful approach to a Saint Patrick's Day cheese platter.
I started with a cheese that I've heard quite a bit about lately - Cashel blue cheese from Tipperary. Last month's Food & Wine magazine featured an article that followed local celebrity chef Cathal Armstrong home to County Donegal. This is Ireland's first farmstead blue cheese, made from cow's milk and first created in 1984. It has a smooth, creamy texture that is reminiscent of Roquefort, but it tends to hold its shape better at room temperature. The flavor of the cheese is at once mildly sweet and bracingly salty. As Cashel warms up, you can even start to detect a bit of a musty scent - but the scent is not at all overwhelming. Cashel works well as a component to a varied cheese plate: the saltiness can balance against sweet accompaniments like apples or grapes, and the creamy texture begs for crunchy counterparts like peppery crackers or unsalted nuts.
The second cheese in my Irish cheese platter was at once an easy choice and a difficult one. It just wouldn't be an Irish collection if I did not include a cheddar, so that was the easy part. The difficulty was choosing one -- many of the most readily available Irish cheeses are cheddars. Rather than just pick a run-of-the-mill cheddar, I decided to seek out a truly unique cheese to fill this role in my platter. I went with a readily available option that blends the dry bite of an aged cheddar with the nuttiness of hard cheeses like parmesan: Kerrygold Dubliner. Dubliner is aged for about a year, and during that time it can develop naturally occuring calcium crystals that give the normally smooth cheese a little bit of a granular texture. It is a firm cheese that crumbles and grates easily, but I tend to enjoy it in small chunks with a slice of apple or pear.
My third and fourth selections came as a package. I set out fully aware of the porter cheese made by the Cahills in County Limerick, so it seemed only appropriate that I should include it on my platter. This is the cheese that many shops refer to as "Guiness cheese" because the porter used is very similar in style and flavor to that most famous of Irish exports. What I didn't know until I arrived at Bower's Fancy Dairy Products in Eastern Market, however, is that the porter is not the Cahill's only alcohol-infused cheese...and their other offering is perhaps even more appealing to those who like to celebrate with a bit of Irish cheer.
Cahill's Whiskey Cheddar has a network of deeper yellow veins running throughout the cheese where the whiskey was allowed to seep into the cheese through naturally occurring 'faults' that run throughout the mold. I was taken by the sweet notes that the whiskey imparts to the cheddar, smoothing out its normally dry taste and giving it a mellow, caramel-like flavor. The porter, as seen in the picture to the right, has an equally veiny appearance where the beer was allowed to run its course. If you love the deep, rich, chocolatey notes of a great porter, you're in for a bit of a disappointment with this cheese. The beer's impact on the flavor is more subtle - though it definitely gives the cheese a depth of flavor and a heft that the whiskey cheddar did not possess. Both of these cheeses struck me as more novelties than go-to choices for the future, but I enjoyed the unique character they lent to the platter.
The four cheeses I selected are fairly representative of the Irish cheeses you're most likely to find in cheese shops throughout the area (and through online retailers like iGourmet). If you're looking for more of an artisanal approach, however, I would encourage you to pay a visit to Cowgirl Creamery. A phone call to the shop resulted in no fewer than three recommendations of farmstead cheeses brought in through their relationship with Neal's Yard Dairy in England, including Cashel blue; a washed-rind cheese called Durrus; and Coolea, a gouda-style cheese made by a Dutch family in Ireland. If you're looking for the cheeses I've featured on my platter, you can find them at a multitude of price points. Normally, you can expect to pay $19 or more per pound for the Cashel blue, $12-$15 per pound for Kerrygold's Dubliner, and $16-$18 per pound for the Cahill's offerings (the porter is less expensive than the whiskey cheddar).
Because of the upcoming holiday, however, the good folks at La Cheeserie in Calvert-Woodley are running a special sale on Irish cheeses. They announce their sales on Wednesdays through their advertisements in the Post's Food section and they generally run until the weekend. I was told by an employee that this week's sale would feature Cashel blue and Cahill's cheeses at $12.99 per pound and that Kerrygold cheese would be on sale for $7.99 per pound. Those are significant savings relative to standard prices, so if you've been tempted by any of my descriptions above, I would encourage you to pay a visit to La Cheeserie and try them for yourself.