Food & Drink / Diary Of A Cheesemaker

Our new column comes from the Trethowan family, makers of Gorwydd Caerphilly – one of Britain’s great territorial cheeses. This month Jess writes of their beginnings in cheese, her husband Todd’s perfectionism and attention to detail, and of their mutual love for the seasons…

Cheese is an assuredly real food. It’s the product of passion, attention to detail and science. It is a living thing with a rich history. It is tied to the land, to the weather and the seasons, to animals, to people, to ideas and to farms.

All this can be detected in the smell, taste, texture and feel of the finished product. Todd learnt about the implications of this, of ‘terroir’, when he trained as an apprentice. He came to understand that, in order to be the best it could, his cheese would need to establish it’s own sense of place, and a character peculiar to the soil, weather and farming of Gorwydd Farm, Todd’s family home in south Wales where his Caerphilly would be made.

This required a slow, scientific approach, patience, obsessive record keeping and the discipline to make only one change (among limitless combinations) at a time. Furthermore, Todd had to wait weeks and months to find out what those first cheeses would be like, and whether each small change would indeed improve the recipe.

After fourteen years making cheese Todd will still wax lyrical about why he does it: “I’ve always believed in just doing one thing well. This is why we’ve only ever made one cheese, and continue to be as obsessive about attention to detail as on the very first day I made it. For me, there are not many things that have such an amazingly seductive and alchemic quality as cheese making. This particular time of year, when the seasons have such an obvious effect on the milk, really brings it home. I love the idea of taking the very basic ingredients – milk, rennet and salt – and going through this transformative process whereby they get turned in to something complex, beautiful and delicious.”

“My first day in my own dairy was the 29th June 1996. It was hot outside. I felt nervous. The most surprising thing was releasing the press the next morning and knocking four Christmas cake-sized cheeses out of their moulds. They looked like cheeses! They smelt sweet, a little sharp, lactic and fresh. I was staggered that after just one day, I’d managed to a make a few cheeses that looked like they were supposed to look.”

Todd was soon joined at the dairy by his brother Maugan and his sister-in-law Kim. With the everyday cheese making in such good hands (they still manage the dairy at Gorwydd) he headed to London to set up the first Trethowan’s Dairy stall at what was then a trial market in it’s infancy, the now world-famous Borough Market.

Later Todd and I moved our family to Bristol – a perfect mid-point between the farm and my then job at the BBC in London. We opened a little cheese shop in the historic St Nicholas Market, moved into an office in a medieval church tower and began to run tasting events, attend food festivals, serve raclette and toasties and become a part of a thriving good food culture. The opening of the shop provided Todd and me with an opportunity to work together and I left my job to concentrate wholly on cheese.

Todd pays such close attention to our cheese, he notices every change and loves the differences brought on by seasons: “It’s exhilarating and reassuring. Particularly when the colder months return. A fresh, new season. A new start. The best light. The best milk. I love getting up when it’s still dark and hearing the sounds of the dairy waking up. The composition of the milk changes really quickly at this time of year. After the rennet has been added, you can really feel the difference as you work the curd.

“The high butter fat content of the milk we use at Gorwydd Farm in the autumn and winter makes the curd feel beautifully silky in your hands. It’s great knowing that we will have fantastic creamy cheese till February or March at least. We always use our hands, if we used the mechanical stirrers or had a closed vat, we wouldn’t feel the difference in the cheese from one month to the next.”

Many cheeses that are at their peak in the winter months are made from milk produced by silage-fed cows. During the spring animals tuck into young grasses and flowers, which produce floral, herbal and grassy characteristics in the cheese. In the summer, the lush grasses are full of beta-carotene, which affects both the flavour and colour of milk – and gives the yellowy-orange colour found in many cheeses. However, in autumn and winter when the cows are eating more silage, grains and hay, the milk develops subtly different characteristics to summer or spring milk.

If Gorwydd Caerphilly can be said to belong to any season in particular, it would be autumn. Just as the colours of the countryside are changing outside, the colour and texture of the cheese is changing. The winter mould on our cheese has a thick, velvety texture and the cheese has a deep, creamy breakdown. It will be at its peak by Christmas…

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  • I can’t believe I’m the first one to comment! There’s so much passion just from this short story, that even a diehard cheese doubter like me gets the strong urge to hop on a plane, get to Bristol and have a bite at your cheese. I’ll opt for the toast tho’, raw cheese is just one step away of what I’m capable of eating now. Used to hate cheese, resented even peanut butter, since it is called peanut cheese in dutch…
    Hopefully I’ll run in to a piece of Cearphilly one day, I’ll remember what was written here when I take a bite.
    Paul Vink, Arnhem, NL