NATIONAL AWARD Aisling Flanagan of Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt pictured in Dublin after the company won its prestigious Irish Food Writers’ Guild award. Pic: Paul Sherwood
Claremorris farm’s yoghurt made with sheep’s milk packs a healthy punch
The words of renowned restaurant critic Ross Golden Bannon echoed around the Suesey Street restaurant in Dublin last week as he eloquently described the wonderful produce from a farm situated between Claremorris and Knock.
“There’s something ethereal about Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt,” he told the audience at the Irish Food Writers’ Guild Awards 2023. “‘Nothing added, nothing strained away’, the label says, just the pure, natural goodness of sheep’s milk from an almost 400-strong flock on the Flanagan family farm near Claremorris.”
“Nutritionally, it punches above its weight,” he added, “with a higher-than-average protein yield, alongside probiotics and live cultures. Eaten on its own, the yogurt is a pleasure in itself, but it performs magical things in sauces, marinades, drinks, bakes and desserts.”
There to collect the gong for Velvet Cloud was Aisling Flanagan, while her business partner and husband, Michael, was back on the farm keeping the home fires burning.
A normal day for Michael and Aisling begins before 5am and ends 19 hours later. The company name suggests slick, silky excellence, but that shouldn’t hide the Flanagans’ tireless efforts to build their beloved business into the roaring success it is today.
The entrepreneurial couple produce world-class yoghurt and cheese from the production hub at the farm, where 120 sheep are milked at any one time.
“We have almost 400 sheep on the farm and they’re divided into different flocks to milk year-round. The traditional Irish breed would give you very little milk. We have two breeds here on the farm, a French-originating breed called Lacaune and the other is a Friesian breed from the Dutch area of Friesland, where the cows come from,” Aisling told The Mayo News.
How does one go about milking a sheep? “Exactly the same way as you milk a cow, except a sheep has two teat and the machine is smaller than the one you’d use to milk a cow,” Aisling explained.
And there are great benefits to the yield, she added: “Sheep’s milk has more nutrients per glass: more protein, fat, vitamins and minerals. For example, sheep milk has almost twice the level of calcium and zinc, compared to cow milk.”
Filling a gap
The path to creating their flourishing business began with time spent in mainland Europe and the spotting of an untapped market in Ireland.
“Michael and myself lived and worked in Italy and France for about ten years. Michael grew up on a traditional sheep and dairy farm in Brickens, so he always had an interest in agriculture,” Aisling said.
“When we were in Italy and France we developed a big interest in food and noticed there were lots of sheep dairy products – sheep cheeses and sheep yoghurts. So, when we came back here we looked into it further. We began to research it and felt there was a gap in the market.
“These days, so many people are looking for dairy alternatives, and there’s great interest in the importance of the microbiome (important gut bacteria). This fits in really well with sheep’s milk because it has different protein to the milk of a cow, so it’s suitable for lots of people avoiding dairy products.”
“It’s also much more sustainable than stuff made from almond or coconut or something flown in from across the world,” she added.
Velvet Cloud has three routes to market. Mayo Consumers will find the products in SuperValu in Castlebar, Westport and Claremorris, and in independent stores, such as Rua and The Foodstore. They’re also available online at velvetcloud.ie. About 40 percent of the business goes to the high-end restaurant sector, supplying the likes of Ashford Castle, The Lodge at Ashford, House of Plates in Castlebar and others.
The company also exports to the UK and Singapore, but this is a small part of the business at present.
“We’re hoping to grow that as much as possible moving forward,” Aisling explained. “We’ve grown year on year and our exports are increasing all the time. To be sustainable and successful we need to be developing our global business because Ireland is too small a market.”
However, developing the company won’t be easy in the current pressurised economy.
“We could do with getting in more sheep and increasing output. We’re selling out of everything we produce at the moment, and we’d like to expand, but it’s a very difficult funding climate for small businesses. Costs have gone up hugely.
“It’s very hard right now. We lost half of our business when Covid hit, but we managed to pivot and develop the online business. That dragged us through that challenge, but the war in Ukraine has been a huge blow for small businesses, and cost increases have been very hard to deal with.”
However, the Flanagans are very proud of Velvet Cloud and the excellence they continue to bring to their consumers.
“It’s a buzz when you’re creating something and the family are all involved. It’s exciting and interesting, and winning this award is a great boost, but it is hard,” she added with a smile.