Read: Irish Examiner | Would you eat sheep milk yogurt?
First published in the Irish Examiner on 6 March 2022.
Mayo company Velvet Cloud is giving away their delicious, nutritious sheep yogurt in a bid to get more people to taste the product. Founder Aisling Flanagan explains why.
Innovation might just be Aisling Flanagan’s middle name. The woman behind Velvet Cloud sheep milk yogurt never lets the grass grow under her feet – that grass is all for feeding the flock of Lacaune and Friesland ewes on the Flanagan family farm in Mayo – while she works tirelessly on spreading the word about her nutritious, creamy yogurt.
Charmingly persuasive at food festivals, shows like Bloom, Food on the Edge and in-store events, Flanagan can get anyone past that initial “will I like this?” feeling by just getting them to taste the yogurt. But that hasn’t been so easy over the last two years. When Covid hit, Velvet Cloud lost 50% of their business overnight. The family rallied quickly, with Flanagan’s son developing an online shop as they rapidly figured out a way of getting chilled product to customers. Suddenly the yogurt was available to people who would not have been able to find it locally and it’s been a system that has worked well for almost two years, along with being available in selected supermarkets.
While the online shop opened up a new market for Velvet Cloud, Flanagan did feel that the size of the order (six 450ml pots for €30, free delivery) was a major stumbling block to getting new customers. Her latest creative solution is to give away yogurt – you just have to pay the delivery cost of €4.50 for the 450ml pot, which can be offset against a future order – so that more people get to taste this delicious, digestion-friendly product.
The only sheep milk yogurt produced in Ireland, Velvet Cloud is made with just two ingredients: fresh sheep’s milk from Flanagan’s farm – land which is ideal for sheep, making it a sustainable product – and live yogurt cultures. Packed with probiotics and active cultures, it’s free from added sweeteners. Sheep milk has high levels of protein, minerals and vitamins, which means that the yogurt has a high nutritional value. Flanagan points out that the increased recognition of gut health and its effect on mental and physical health has been a boost to her business as she has noticed an increase in people seeking out Velvet Cloud due to their intolerance to dairy protein. While sheep milk is still a dairy product, it has a different protein structure to cow milk, mostly containing the more digestible A2 beta-casein protein. People pick Flanagan’s yogurt for several reasons: they find it easy to digest, there’s an increased interest in live, fermented products to strengthen the gut microbiome, they want to avoid processed foods – and it tastes great.
This is backed up by the number of chefs who use Velvet Cloud in sweet and savoury dishes and have put it on their menus. Since launching the yogurt in 2015, Flanagan has used social media to get word out about the yogurt and Twitter, in particular, has been useful to amplify her message. “Very early on, we were really lucky that we were able to get it into the hands of the best chefs eg Jess Murphy in Kai, JP McMahon of Aniar, Enda McEvoy at Loam, Philippe Farineau in Ashford Castle who used it and shouted about it.” As well as having a naturally sweet taste and creamy texture, Velvet Cloud is also a versatile ingredient. “People use it on their porridge, with granola in the morning,” says Flanagan. “Chefs use it as a replacement for cream or crème fraîche. It’s great as a salad dressing or to marinade chicken. Lots of people use it in baking – we have a great recipe for porridge bread on our website.“
Flanagan is so confident that people will enjoy the taste of this nutritious, creamy yogurt that she’s happy to send out free pots, knowing that she’ll get return customers and she’s getting a great reaction to the offer so far. “We’re a small food company,” says Flanagan, “and we have ambitions to grow and be a national brand. For that, we need nationwide distribution, which was stymied by the pandemic, a time that was incredibly challenging for small food businesses.” Innovation ensured that Velvet Cloud survived. Now it’s time to thrive.
Irish sheep milk products
With only a handful of milking flocks in Ireland, most sheep milk is turned into cheese, including 2019 World Cheese award winner Rockfield, which is also produced by Velvet Cloud. Other sheep milk cheese producers include:
Ballyhubbock Farm: George and Hanna Finlay use sheep milk in all their small batch, handmade products: a variety of ice creams (vanilla, chocolate ganache, raspberry crumble and lemon curd), a Blas na hEireann award-winning halloumi-style cheese and fresh, lightly salted ricotta. Theirs is a farm-to-fork enterprise on the 108-acre farm that they run with George’s parents in the Glen-of-Imaal, Co Wicklow. The Imaal halloumi-style cheese is available through Sheridans Cheesemongers, select SuperValu and Centra stores while their other products can be found on Neighbourfood. instagram.com/ballyhubbockfarm
Cáis na Tíre: Cheesemakers and sheep farmers Barry and Lorraine Cahalan make this hard cheese on their farm in Terryglass, Co Tipperary. Learning their craft from Marion Roeleveld of Killeen Farmhouse Cheese, they now produce a cheese with richly carmelised, sweet flavours that has been compared to an Irish manchego. caisnatire.ie
Cashel Blue: Two sheep milk cheeses come out of this Tipperary cheesemaking stronghold. Crosier Blue, a sister to the landmark Cashel Blue, is a slow maturing, semi-soft blue cheese with a rich flavour, while Shepherd’s Store is a traditional farmhouse-style, semi-hard cheese. Both are made from locally sourced, pasturised Friesland sheep milk and are available nationwide. Cashelblue.com
Cratloe Cheese: An early example of farm diversification, Sean and Deirdre Fitzgerald started producing the first Irish sheep cheese on their Co Clare farm back in 1988 and they haven’t stopped since. They sell mild and mature varieties of their multi award winning Cratloe Hills Sheep’s Cheese, both made with vegetarian rennet. cratloecheese.com