‘I loved talking about food’

Giana Ferguson, 56, lives with her family in West Cork in the Republic of Ireland. Originally from London, she moved to Spain at the age of 18 then Ireland at 24, before marrying and becoming a farmer, developing the award-winning Gubbeen cheese with her husband, Tom. She is a founder member of the Irish Farmhouse Cheese-makers Association and started Slow Food Ireland in West Cork.

I was born in London. During my childhood I had a very strong sense of belonging, of being a Londoner. The imprint of my childhood endures with London slang and London manners.

My father’s family were diplomats. He grew up in Palestine, Malta and Cyprus in those expatriate communities that were the embassies of those days but my mother was English. She had deep tap roots like an oak but mine never grew. I was a genetic nomad and my own travelling began when my parents split up.

When I was young I loved talking about food with my grandfather. He was a Hungarian who became more English than the English during his colonial service and through whom I developed my early social camouflage skills. We would plan dishes and embark on cooking forays to Berwick Street market. I suspect we smelled of garlic more often than was normal in Kensington in the 1950s. As for my father, he left behind his childhood embassies and the London drawing rooms of married life and went to Dublin to meet his match in the writers and painters of his time, then finally moved to Spain and set up home in Alora, a small mountain village above Malaga. Here, while making a film on García Lorca for the BBC, he discovered Andalusian gypsies, horses, lemon trees and magically warm nights.

By the time I left school, my father’s odyssey had created a strong romantic and irresponsible interest in risk-taking within me but it took years to forge it into a workable creativity. I believe it was through my maternal old English roots that I managed it.

I landed a job in London as an exhibition organiser at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) after training with the Arts Council. The subtle, civilised bohemia of early 1970s Soho was lovely but couldn’t compete in the end with the draw of West Cork. My uncle had lived on an island off Baltimore, where I spent teenage holidays during which I didn’t have to explain myself for days on end. So, aged 24, I took off again to Ballydehob in West Cork and took a job in a little village bar where potters, Buddhists, farmers, poets and fishermen found a great deal to say over a pint.

Here I met Tom, whose family had farmed at Gubbeen for generations. I recognised the decency and strength that a sense of place and belonging can support. I was very much an outsider and had to learn fast how not to step on the many invisible trip-wires that a rural world constructs. I had to slip back into my grandfather’s chameleon training and work it out.

My home in Gubbeen is a small, 250-acre farm on the most south-westerly Atlantic corner of Ireland. Tom says we farm “rock and bog” but, in the wonderful challenge of dairying in this climate, we are blessed with wonderful pasture and clean air at the very edge of Europe. Still, starting to produce regional traditional foods in Ireland in the 1970s was not immediately seen as a workable proposition. Long, seven-day weeks of hard work and putting each and every animal’s priorities over your own needs is not for everyone. But I’d survived the first hurdles as an expat and the roots were beginning to sprout.

It was Spain that I missed most once our son, Fingal, was born. Perhaps it was because we worked so hard at Gubbeen building up the farm and developing the small cheese dairy that was just beginning to pay its way. I think I longed for the hot slothful evenings of wine and talk and heat. On our trips to Spain with young Fingal, however, we sowed the seeds for his adult life as he now successfully sells his charcuteries produced at Gubbeen Smokehouse from the pigs reared on whey from our dairy. We would drive all the way to Granada or Ronda just to buy jamon (ham) and those little black-footed pigs that produce it devilled around on the mountain behind my father’s house. Fingal loved all that: the knives, the elegant displays of jamon and, of course, the blood and guts of a matanza (the ritual pig-killing and salami-making). He was hooked by the age of 10. And he, too, smelled more often of garlic than perhaps was normal for Ballydehob primary school.

Food has been our life-work at Gubbeen. Bringing small artisan cheese-production back to Ireland with my great cheese colleagues was a real labour of love. We were one of the original five cheese-makers who started the Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers Association, which is now thriving and seen as the spearhead of the flourishing renaissance in Irish food. Building the Slow Food Ireland network has also brought us into contact with remarkable, talented and innovative people, all of whom, like Tom and I, have had to battle through years of European Union regulation. My expat stubbornness might have been a support here. I can argue with a passion from off-side whereas Tom’s natural good manners keep a balance.

How the EU managed to infiltrate the Irish mind-set with “risk assessment” and over-regulation in a country populated with such critical minds and fierce independence of spirit is a mystery to me. What I so respect – Irish good manners and the subtle handling of stupidity with irony – mysteriously fades in the face of Eurocracy. We are overrun with auditors and regulator’s risk assessors. There are regulatory “industries” forming around our food culture, which has emerged as one of the most naturally adventurous and skilled in Europe.

Irish chefs have real panache and the fish, meats, cheeses and wild foods, together with Irish fun, must resist the dumbing-down of over-zealous policing. Irish farmers can feed our own population and export these marvellous Irish foods to critical markets around Europe if we meet the challenge.

This most south-westerly point of Europe is populated by many famous blow-ins (a West Cork word for an expat). Throughout the centuries the supportive community here has welcomed whatever the sea blew in: Huguenots, Spaniards, French or Britons. It attracts the refugee from both success and failure. You can be buying your coffee in the local café with a Hollywood star ahead in the queue and a city pirate behind. We are all treated equally by the noble-spirited West Cork people and warmly welcomed to share in one of the great cultures of Europe.

My children are Irish. They were born in the small local hospital, schooled here and have good Irish manners. They are all working on the land at Gubbeen with Tom and me. This is the greatest harvest of our life. Fingal speaks Spanish when he’s had a few drinks and Clovisse, too, can melt into Spanish ways when she is with her Spanish family. Her Irish persona is quiet and a little poetic but in Spain her volume goes up and there’s a swing in her hips.

I realise that in spite of the years of really hard work and the many scrapes and falters that were the development of both farm cheese and Slow Food they must have got the message that this is “home”, where they belong and where they can express their creativity. Fingal’s remarkable palate might be Hungarian and honed in Spain but it is his Irish instinct and Gubbeen pigs that account for his success. Clovisse’s organic herbs and vegetable gardens came from a smiling understanding that hours in driving rain and mud are going to turn into God’s own new potatoes and mint. Meanwhile Rosie, our intellectual, who can incorporate anthropology into running a small West Cork dairy’s traceability programme, also copes with my growing rebellion at our having to do so.

They understand the need to break our generation’s addictions and to build up stronger decencies with the land and its resources than we have done during our time – and to be generous with the imbalances in the world. They might not jet around quite so blithely as their expat mother but she has learnt to have real faith in this courageous generation.

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