The Great Comeback
A crumbly Welsh commodity transforms into a well-bred wheel
From the lunch pails of Welsh coal miners centuries ago to a sought-after treasure at today's carriage trade shops, Caerphilly cheese of Wales has traveled some distance. Although the very first Caerphilly – a fresh, juicy farmstead curd that workers carried into the mines–has nearly vanished with the advent of factory-made versions, a new artisanal interpretation of old-fashioned Caerphilly has put this quirky cow's milk cheese in front of connoisseurs.
Gorwydd Caerphilly (GOR-with care-FILL-ee), made by the Trethowan brothers of Gorwydd Farm in central Wales, debuted in 1996 to the surprised delight of cheese aficionados. With little resemblance to the acidic, crumbly Caerphilly still made in British factory dairies, the Gorwydd version redefines Caerphilly and raises the prestige of the heretofore lowbrow cheese.
"A lot of people said that we were mad," admits Todd Trethowan, who operates the hundred-acre Gorwydd Farm with his brother Maugan. "They said, 'You need to call your cheese something else. Who's going to spend money on Caerphilly?'"
But Todd had apprenticed with Chris Duckett, a Somerset-based Caerphilly maker and one of the last artisan producers. Duckett's Caerphilly didn't look like miner's cheese either, because at the urging of a prominent retail customer–the esteemed Neal's Yark Dairy in London–he was maturing it. Duckett thought that preserving a Welsh cheese on Trethowan's family farm in Wales seemed the right thing to do.
BACK AND FORTH
To grasp the transformation of Caerphilly from a miners‚ meal to a pricy artisan cheese, turn the clock back two hundred years: England was leading the Industrial Revolution and the demand for coal to power steam engines and steel plants was soaring. South Wales, rich in coal, became a mining center. Naturally enough, the simple local cheese accompanied workers on their daily descent.
"It was nice and salty, to replace all the sweat of their exertion in the mine," says Neal's Yard Dairy managing director Randolph Hodgson.
Sustained by the coal industry, the population of South Wales grew and the demand for Caerphilly eventually outstripped the local supply. Production of the cheese migrated to England around the turn of the twentieth century when, across the Bristol channel, the Cheddar cheesemakers of Somerset spotted an opportunity in Caerphilly. Making aged Cheddar tied up their money for months, but Caerphilly, released to the market when it was about two weeks old, put cash in their pockets immediately. Understandably, many Cheddar makers added Caerphilly to their repertoire.
Gradually, Caerphilly became an inexpensive commodity cheese, virtually indistinguishable from factory Cheshire or Lancashire, says David Lockwood, operations director of Neal's Yard Dairy. "They're all very close to that crumbly cheese profile."
But fortunately, the factories hadn't swallowed every producer. Duckett, on his farm in Somerset, was still making Caerphilly the way his parents and grandparents did. And in the early 1980s, Duckett's cheese and a prospecting merchant had a fateful encounter.
"I was making cheese at Neal's Yard but wanted to sell some cheese made by other people," Hodgson recalls. So he approached an Italian delicatessen owner in London's Soho who sold a Caerphilly cheese that Hodgson really liked. The retailer offered him a few wheels, but when Hodgson took them home, they didn't look or taste anything like the ones at the deli.
Mystified, Hodgson went back to the deli owner.
"I want some like you're selling," he told the merchant. "Then you have to mature them," replied the Italian.
Hodgson learned that the merchant had been keeping Duckett's wheels in their box for eight weeks and periodically rubbing the carton with cold water. In that cool, moist environment, the wheels attracted external mold and their chalky interior paste began to break down and darken in color. A creamy layer developed under the rind and mushroom aromas emerged.
Hodgson became an avid missionary for mature Caerphilly and persuaded Duckett to age the wheels for two months. When they were finally brought to the shop, Neal's Yard customers couldn't believe that this profoundly aromatic cheese with fuzzy mold was Caerphilly. "They still don't," quips Lockwood. "But that's okay because it tastes so good."
At Gorwydd Farm, the Trethowan brothers perpetuate the recipe that Duckett passed on, using raw milk from a neighbor's Friesian cows. Seven days a week, fifty-two weeks per year, they make Caerphilly, their only product, entirely by hand. "We just want to do one thing well," Todd says.
After culturing the milk, it's coagulated with animal rennet; the curd is then gently warmed and stirred for almost an hour. "Cheddar makers can use mechanical stirrers because their curd is robust," says Todd. "Our curd is like yogurt cheese. If we were to use mechanical stirrers, we'd butcher it."
After draining the whey, they begin the process of "texturing," bending over the vat to cut the curds into one-inch cubes. "It's absolutely backbreaking," says Todd. "You could just put it through the mill, but we think [hand-cutting] is better for the texture. Supermarket Caerphilly has been through a mill."
The curds are salted, then packed into perforated molds that resemble deep, ten-inch-wide cake tins. A collar helps corral the curds until the wheel compacts and shrinks in height. The wheels are pressed briefl y, then dry salted, then pressed again overnight. After unmolding, they spend a day in a brine bath–the third salting – then move to an aging room for two months. At that point, Maugan's wife, Kim, takes over. A Neal's Yard Dairy veteran, she monitors the long maturation, turning a cache of up to 2,000 wheels every day. The constant flipping ensures that the wheels don't stick to the boards and that the mold coat develops evenly.
By the end of its cellar time, Gorwydd Caerphilly sports a striking rind: thick, crusty, and blanketed with velvety, multicolored molds. "I always say it should feel like suede shoes," says Debra Dickerson of 3D Cheese in Oakland, California, which markets the cheeses of Neal's Yard Dairy in the United States.
The paste resembles a layer cake, with inch-thick golden layers on top and bottom and a paler strip throughout the middle. Those darker bands, where the paste's breakdown is more advanced, deliver earthy aromas and a creamy texture; the pale inner stripe is more crumbly and curd-like, with a lemony, yogurt-like tang. "It's quite nice when it starts breaking down like that," says Todd, who advises shoppers to look for a wheel with a "lip" on the top and bottom edge. "We call that 'the pie crust'‚ and it's a sign that it's getting there. The top wrinkles as well, and we call that 'the brains.'"
The paste's visually articulated bands may call to mind a Huntsman cheese, that double-decker sandwich of Double Gloucester and Stilton. But Gorwydd Caerphilly's layers are "not manufactured, not Huntsmanesque," says Dickerson. "It's just Mother Nature doing her job."
Mother Nature, with the help of the Trethowan family, that is, who persist despite the shrinking world of artisan Caerphilly producers. Duckett himself has recently sold his business, having no family members who wanted to carry on the tradition. Fortunately the buyer, Dr. Jemima Cordle, intends to maintain the name and the standards. She's even reinstated the use of raw milk and animal rennet, traditional ingredients that Duckett abandoned in later years. Nevertheless, he remains a living legend among British cheesemakers and indisputably the midwife of Gorwydd Caerphilly.
"A lot of people make cheese from a recipe, from a page in a book," Todd reflects. "I feel so much luckier because I learned from Chris."
Text by Janet Fletcher