How to make… Hafod Cheddar
Bwlchwernen Fawr. Hard enough to pronounce, let alone find, especially with enterprising Welsh locals turning round the road signs to keep us confused. It’s no wonder they say no one ever visits! But late one Friday night, after much searching, we find Patrick Holden’s farm which overlooks the Irish Sea. The name of the cheese – Hafod (pronounced Havod) – means ‘Summer Pasture’ in Welsh. To us, perched high on this wild, wet and windswept hillside, the name seems a little inappropriate!
A long time ago Patrick bought this land and started one of the first organic farms in the UK; 35 years later he’s still an ambassador and statesman for the organic movement, preaching its virtues and dispelling the myths.
Yet every day Patrick farms this small 150-acre corner of Wales. So we joined him bright and early the next morning to defrost a frozen parlour and milk his 65 cows.
Needing a special cow to withstand the tough Welsh conditions, Patrick chose the Ayrshire breed. Although hardy and long lived, they provide much less milk than the common Holstein-Friesians milkers seen all over the UK (the ‘black-and-white’ cow) – a reason why many have stopped using the inefficient breed. “Many dairy farmers would laugh at us, think us mad!” exclaims Sam, Patrick’s son. Sam returned to the farm in 2007 with his wife Rachel, giving up their successful careers in London to help revive the struggling farm.
Milk from the Ayrshire cows is a rich, excellent quality – ideal for cheese making (it’s naturally high in butterfat and protein, important elements for making cheese), with the quality further enhanced by the farm’s tough, slow-growing organic pasture. So, on his return to the farm, it seemed natural Sam should start to produce cheese. Many years ago Patrick sold his milk to local pioneering cheese maker Dougal Campbell; so Sam started with Douglas’s recipe as a base.
Hafod cheese has since developed into the form seen today – a great success. Whilst other local farms have given up and turned to fallow, Bwlchwernen Fawr has gone from strength to strength, employing local men and contributing to the local economy.
However, although making a great cheese, Sam’s not prepared to stop there. He’s unable to expand, however, due to the limits of the land so can only produce nine 10kg cheeses a day (even the smallest farmhouse Cheddar maker in Somerset makes around 500kg of Hafod Cheese day, and industrial producers make far more: the factory that makes ‘Cathedral City’ has an output of 115,000kg of cheddar a day – i.e. every day it makes 3.5 times Sam’s total annual production.)
Therefore Sam’s mission is to improve Hafod Cheddar to become the best in the world. Part of this sees him examining older recipes and using Dora Saker’s eminent 1917 Cheddar bible to try to recreate the way her curds look. But following these out-dated methods means long gruelling days: you’ll find Sam in the dairy for twelve hours every day.
Because he uses antiquated, inefficient methods, and Ayrshire cattle, some farmhouse Cheddar makers think he’s crazy. I disagree: Sam & Rachel Holden’s future is promising. I can’t wait to try some of his experimental Hafod cheeses when they are fully matured. At 3 months old they were already tasting brilliant – buttery, rich and warm.
Also see this related article on ‘Historical Cheesemaking: Dora Saker, the Ministry of Agriculture & my Great Gran‘.