The story and philosophy behind Slow Food-approved trader Trethowan’s Dairy
About half way through our phone interview, Lucy Menter breaks off and mutters something to someone in the background. “Sorry,” she says when she returns, “that was the farmer asking if he could start the milk delivery.” Speaking live from the dairy in Somerset, Lucy’s aside—and the farmer’s inadvertent interruption—is the second indication of how aligned Trethowan’s Dairy is with Slow Food values.
The first, of course, is the cheese itself: gorwydd caerphilly dusted with grey velvet, its rind opening up to reveal a buttery yellow creaminess which drifts into a pale, fine crumb toward the centre of the wheel.
It’s made in Somerset, she says, because that’s where the best milk is. “We were in an old farm building in south Wales”—the original home of caerphilly cheese, and still closely associated with it—”but we didn’t have a dedicated milk supply and it was a bit hit and miss sometimes.”
The choice, for eponymous founder and former Neal’s Yard Dairy cheesemonger Todd Trethowan, was simple: resign himself to second-rate caerphilly, or up sticks and embark on a hunt to find the best milk possible. The result, an organic, high welfare farm just over the Bristol Channel, was even better than they’d dreamed.
“We can see the cows from the room where we make the cheese. There’s a real connection,” she enthuses. If something’s not right, the farmer is footsteps away—though that rarely happens. “They are really skillful herdsmen.”
Falling untouched and unpasturised along the pipe from the parlour to the vat wherein it’s heated and stirred, there starts a process which, for all the modernity surrounding it—the pipe, the new, purpose-built dairy—dates back to at least the 19th century: “Caerphilly was historically made on farms, in small batches, and by hand,” Lucy continues. “The milk is mechanically stirred very slowly as it is heated—after that, everything is manual.”
The curd is cut by two people, and textured by four people: “If it’s too rough you lose moisture, too small and it’s not textured enough. We need it to be creamy-crumbly.” When it’s finally pressed and in the storing room, it’s regularly turned by one person, by hand. “All in all, it’s a laborious process. But if we didn’t do that, it wouldn’t be the same cheese.”
They need consistency—of production, but more importantly, of quality. “Caerphilly’s got a bad name for itself as a factory-made cheese,” says Lucy. “Ours is very different.” Everything, from the make-up of the herd (100 Holstein, 20 Jersey cows) to its feeding has been tailored to making the best possible caerphilly. “You don’t want too many Jerseys, because it gets too fatty. The benefit of having such a close relationship with the farmer is that he’s open to adjusting that balance.” Likewise, if a change of feed would be conducive to a better cheese.
Rich, inimitable pleasure
Seasonal variations are inevitable—they are part and parcel of making an artisan cheese made with unpasteurised milk, and long may that be the case. There’s a rich, inimitable pleasure to be had in waiting for the season in which it tastes best for you. For Lucy, that’s October through to late April. “When the cows come inside, you get this much creamier cheese because their diet changes to silage and the butterfat content of the milk increases.”
There are those, of course, who prefer the summer cheese: lighter, fresher, more citrusy—and if that’s you, hold on a month or so. If you’re in Lucy’s camp, get yourself t’market.
As caerphilly ages, it acquires its distinctive grey velvet jacket: a rind unique not to Trethowan’s Dairy as it is, but as it used to be back when it was in Llandewi Brefi, south Wales. “When we moved the dairy, there was a big concern about changing the microclimate for the cheese.” On Todd’s parents farm it just grew; now they had to somehow transport those mysterious latent bacteria 100-odd miles south. But through a combination of boards which cheeses had matured on, unwashed, a few hundred cheeses they had in stock, and several litres of whey, it worked.
“Don’t ask me what exact mould it is,” Lucy laughs. For the Trethowans, it’s enough that it’s made it: that a little piece of the Welsh tradition has come with them to Somerset. After all, Somerset too has a tradition of making caerphilly cheese.
Third generation caerphilly-maker
When Todd set up his dairy, he learnt from Chris Duckett—a third generation caerphilly-maker whose family, in the 19th century, spotted the rise in demand for caerphilly across the border and jumped on the milk-waggon. There was a speedy financial return to be had by making this relatively fast-maturing cheese. “It spread across the West Country, it was very popular. It could even be matured in a few weeks—but we don’t do that,” Lucy adds, hastily distancing Trethowan’s Dairy from those more beady-eyed makers.
A Welsh family, trained in Neal’s Yard Dairy, refined by a traditional Somerset caerphilly-maker and now making a traditional cheese in new dairy Somerset, they are as close as you’ll get to the best of both farmhouse caerphillys.