A few months ago, I was invited by Kerrygold to go to Ireland with a group of bloggers. Our proposed itinerary was to spend a day at the Ballymaloe Litfest and to visit a family dairy farm that is part of the cooperative that supplies Kerrygold with milk. It only took me about 15 seconds to reply with YES ME YES YES PLEASE AND THANK YOU YES YES YES, throwing any pretence of cool nonchalance I might have had to the wind.
After that, all that was left to do was to impatiently await our departure and to aggravate the kind people in my life by asking them repeatedly if they knew that I was going to Ireland in May to see some cows. Ireland in May! To see cows! IRELAND! ME! COWS! I could not contain myself. And yet despite all that excitement and enthusiasm, the trip still managed to be better than I hoped.
The Ballymaloe Litfest, only in its second year, was held on the grounds of the Ballymaloe Cookery School, an impossibly beautiful place filled with wisteria-clad country houses, rustic old barns, beautifully lush green lawns and friendly Irish people. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi were there, as were Sandor Katz, David Tanis, Christopher Hirsheimer, Diana Kennedy and many luminaries of the Irish and English food world. There were delicious things to eat and the weather was splendid and I loved that the festival organizers made the entrance fee affordable so that many local families could come and spread out on the grounds with their (stunningly beautiful) children.
The absolute highlight of my day at the festival was attending a talk with René Redzepi of Noma. He was witty and humble and fun, full of good stories about his start in the cooking world (after flunking out of school at 15, he followed his best friend to cooking school on a whim) and about the formative time he spent each year with his father's family in a poor Macedonian village. We could have all listened to him talk for hours and it felt like such a gift to have been given insight into the mind behind the legendary restaurant. There were many, many other events at the festival that I wished I'd been able to attend, but who knows, there's always next year.
On Sunday, the sky thick with clouds and rain, we piled into a little bus and drove up the southern coast of Ireland, near Waterford, to visit a dairy farmer whose land sits at the very edge of the coast. We walked down a winding path lined with gorse and other low shrubs until we got to a pasture, the grass thick and velvety and a bright, vivid green. We opened the wooden gate and walked into the pasture with his herd, a group of about 65 Friesian cows. In one direction was the open sea and a blurry horizon, in the other, the craggy cliffs of the coast. The wind whipped the grass and some cows watched us quietly and inquisitively, while others munched away at the grass or sat quietly chewing their cud. These were clearly happy cows.
We stood there for a long time. I can't speak for the others, but something about the ocean and the presence of the animals and the whipping wind moved me. It felt so majestic and mysterious, like I was standing on the edge of the world. I had one of those moments I've written about before, as if someone had pulled back the curtain on some deep and beautiful secret that we go through life looking for. Something about being out in the rugged wildness of nature triggers that feeling, I guess. But when it came time to go back to the farmer's house for tea and sandwiches, I didn't want to go. I'd only just gotten there and the thought that I'd probably never again see this part of the world, our wild and beautiful world, made my heart ache a little. What lucky cows, and people, to get to live there. Lucky me, too, that I got to see it for a little while.
Back at the house, the farmer's wife put out a spread of sandwiches and cakes and cookies to put most Manhattan board meetings to shame. There was an enormous metal tea pot filled with strong, hot tea and we sat and warmed our bones while the farmer told us a little bit about dairy farming in Ireland and what makes Irish butter and cheese so special.
The dairy farms that belong to the Irish Dairy Board (the farmers' cooperative behind the Kerrygold brand) are all family farms that have been handed down over the generations and hardly any of the farms has a herd that exceeds 65 cows. The mild Irish climate means that the cows can live and graze outside 300 days out of the year and when they do eat feed, it's made up of locally grown barley, non-GMO soy and citrus. Backed by stringent EU laws, Irish milk is hormone and antibiotic-free - if a cow happens to get sick (with mastitis, for example) and needs to be treated with antibiotics, her milk is removed from the system and her medication is reported to the government until she's well again. Because of their way of life, grass-fed Irish dairy cows live longer than industrial dairy cows, about five years instead of three, and they don't suffer from the ailments that we know industrial cows suffer from. They're also not high-yield dairy cows. This system translates to high-quality milk products for the consumer, fair prices for the dairy farmers and a good life for the cows.
Just last week, a story about the torturous existence of turkeys raised industrially in Germany made the rounds here. At a time when so many of us know more and more about the deplorable state of the animals kept for our dietary needs (and whims), it was refreshing to see that a different way exists.
The rest of the day was spent on the road and I didn't get back home until very late, but I couldn't stop thinking about that moment with the herd of happy, quiet cows out in the great green pasture on those craggy Irish cliffs. I'm so very grateful I got to experience that moment. I know I'll never forget it or the kind and lovely family who brought us there and let us in on their world.
Disclosure: My trip was organized and paid for by Kerrygold, but all my thoughts, opinions and, indeed, the decision to write about the trip, are my own.