Velvet Cloud is a handmade natural sheep’s milk yogurt produced by husband and wife team, Aisling and Michael Flanagan, in Co. Mayo.
The pair have always had a great love of food and have both lived and worked in Italy and France, a period during which “our real passion and love of good food was fostered”.
Aisling worked with Bord Bia in Milan for 7 years, something she describes as “a great introduction to the Irish food industry”. She also managed Bord Bia’s Paris office, further expanding her knowledge and expertise. Both Michael and Aisling returned to Ireland in 2000 and inspired by their time abroad, they set up Velvet Cloud, with Michael explaining:
“I grew up on a traditional dairy farm in the west of Ireland and we also kept sheep. So I had always had an interest in dairy and sheep and had actually looked into sheep dairying while at college, but I didn’t pursue it. And then while living in Italy and France, I noticed the prevalence of sheep dairy products. We often asked ourselves why, with so many sheep in Ireland, there weren’t more people milking them. When we came back to Ireland we started to look into the potential a bit more.”
Researching this potential, Aisling comments that there definitely seemed to be a gap for them: “I’d been helping businesses find and develop new markets for years, so I approached it from a market research point of view, and sure enough all of our research seemed to point to an opportunity.”
After thorough research and visits to supermarkets all over Europe, they started to experiment with small batches of yogurt in their kitchen:
“Once we were happy with the product, we distributed samples of it around to speciality retailers and shops asking for feedback. To our surprise, it was overwhelming.”
Since launching in July 2015, social media has played an integral part in getting the business off the ground, with Aisling’s initial tweet garnering positive reactions:
“I tweeted that we were launching and within 30 minutes, JP McMahon of Aniar had tweeted us saying he was interested in us dropping some in to him. This was closely followed by a similar tweet from Jess Murphy in Kai. I spent the next 3 hours just watching Twitter take off with good wishes and most importantly, chefs asking for samples.”
She added: “Social media is fundamental in building our brand. Irish chefs are hugely supportive of Irish producers and visa versa. It’s such a buzz whenever a chef posts a photo of a dish using Velvet Cloud.”
Aisling is delighted with the wonderful support Velvet Cloud has been getting across Ireland and hopes that this continues into the future:
“We continue to be blessed with amazing support from so many of the country’s top chefs. Now in our second year, we thankfully appear on menus across Ireland and as word spreads, interest is building as well.”
Asking why Velvet Cloud is proving so popular, Aisling explains: “It’s popular with chefs because it is thicker and creamier than cow yogurts and has a milder, less tangy and slightly sweeter taste. So it works very well in both savoury and sweet dishes.”
So what makes Velvet Cloud unique? Firstly, it’s the only Irish made sheep’s milk yogurt commercially available in Ireland:
“It is also unique in that the sheep’s milk comes from the same farm where the milk is produced and this milk comes from a flock of grass-fed ewes. There are other sheep’s yogurts produced in Europe and in the UK, however for the most part they don’t come from grass-fed flocks. This is a huge advantage of living in Ireland as we are able to keep our animals outside on grass for almost the entire year.”
Describing their product, the pair explain: “Our sheep’s milk yogurt contains just two ingredients. The first is fresh sheep’s milk, which comes straight from our flock of grass-fed ewes which we milk twice a day, and the second is live probiotic yogurt cultures.”
Velvet Cloud boasts a number of nutritional benefits: “Sheep’s milk has a higher solid content and higher nutritional value compared to cow’s milk. It’s popular with those interested in their nutrition and digestion because of its unique properties. It suits many with digestive challenges or those allergic to cow’s milk, so we have a growing presence in the health food sector. It also has higher levels of ‘heart healthy fats’ (or what in food chemistry are call “polar lipids”) compared to cow’s milk.”
To produce their Velvet Cloud, Aisling and Michael heat the milk to over 90 degrees before cooling it to 40 degrees. Adding the live cultures, the product is left to incubate overnight. The result is a thick creamy yogurt, which is packed and chilled to 4 degrees before sending it on to customers.
Working with your spouse can be an interesting experience to say the least, with Aisling describing their working relationship as coming with both advantages and disadvantages:
“There is no wasting time with office politics and being polite to your colleagues, so stuff gets done and agreed on very quickly. But we are a lot more honest with each other than I bet we would be with colleagues, which can be a good and a bad thing.”
Joking, Michael said “I better not comment or I might get in trouble”, but then added that “we have very complimenting skills and look after distinctly different areas of the business so, so far so good.”
Velvet Cloud is currently stocked in about 70 stores, with the full list of stockists available on their website. As well as their yogurt, the couple also produce fresh and frozen sheep’s milk and ‘Rockfield’ sheep’s milk cheese, which is loosely based on a French-Basque style Ossau-Iraty cheese.
As a start-up business, Aisling and Michael face a number of challenges, with long hours and the struggle to find a work-life balance with their four children (who they’ve dubbed their “junior shepherds”) proving the most difficult.
Despite this, Velvet Cloud has had a number achievements and amazing experiences, and the pair hopes to continue to grow their business:
“Wining a Euro-toques award for innovation in dairy was a huge boost to us so early into the business, it was surreal. Since then being part of that community has been hugely helpful in building our reputation. Milking Siobhan the sheep live on the Late Late Show in February 2016 was a bit surreal as well, although Siobhan has taken all that fame in her stride.”
She added: “Though we are still very small and need now to increase volumes, I suppose we have developed a bit of recognition among chefs in Ireland and it is always a thrill and honour to actually see Velvet Cloud written on a menu, especially when some of those menus are at Michelin star level.”
Looking to the future and it seems Velvet Cloud will be expanding, much to the delight of their customers:
“We’ve started making our first batches of this season’s sheep’s milk cheese. We made a start last year and hope to do a lot more volume this year. Then we absolutely want to expand the business, look at other sheep’s dairy products and start exporting.”
You can find Velvet Cloud in Supervalu, Evergreen Health Stores, Avoca, Fallon and Byrne, Donnybrook Fair and much more.
For more information about Velvet Cloud, their products and stockists, you can visit their website at velvetcloud.ie.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.