Our regular column from the Trethowans, makers of Gorwydd Caerphilly – one of Britain’s great territorial cheeses. This month Jess recounts the hard work and equal delights of a cold winter at Gorwydd farm.
The early snow this year has brought with it some of the jobs we usually tackle closer to Christmas and into January. Clearing the long driveway of snow and ice needs to happen at least twice a day in order that the milk tanker and the couriers can make it to and from the dairy, delivering milk and picking up cheese.
Thawing out the whey pipes with hot water is an ongoing job in order to keep the cheese vat and the dairy functioning. The whey that we discard during cheese-making has its own important role to play in that it feeds our own pigs and those belonging to many local small holders and farmers.
Maugan and Kim, who run the dairy day-to-day, are working flat out, seven days a week at this time of year to make enough cheese for Christmas. Cheese stocks are high and this means that the daily job of turning the cheese takes much longer. Each cheese must be lifted, turned and rubbed every day of the year, including Christmas day, to enable it to mature evenly and to prevent it from sticking to the pine boards on which it matures.
And of course it is always busy in the packing room in the run up to Christmas – preparing and chilling down boxes of cheese to go out by courier to delis, specialist cheese shops and wholesalers.
Outside the dairy, the Cambrian mountainside has a covering of snow and frost. The cattle have come off the mountain and are in their winter sheds, gorging themselves on silage, producing subtly different milk which will give us concentrated flavours and creaminess in the resulting cheese.
The hedges around the farm have all been cut. The best of the hedgerow wood, a lovely variety of ash, hazel and hawthorn, has been separated for sawing and splitting and will be added to the neat log pile behind the farmhouse. Later on in the winter we’ll be adding chestnut to the log piles, ready for the wood-burner which heats the house and the water. It is a lovely fact that the hard work of managing the land helps to sustain the house too.
Any hedgerow wood that doesn’t make the grade for the wood burner is heaped into huge mounds dotted around the farm for bonfires throughout the winter. The bonfires are functional and beautiful but must be lit before the birds start to nest in them in the early spring.
This year is a good one for berries from the hawthorn, holly and mountain ash trees, and for the sociable fieldfares who have flown in huge flocks from Northern Europe in search of warmer weather and food. They swoop and hop purposefully around the fields, stripping whole trees of berries.
Thankfully, we anticipated their arrival and, in early November, picked our own holly for the farm, the shop and our Christmas stalls in Bristol and Bath. Christmas greenery grows in abundance on the farm so it doesn’t take long to collect sufficient ivy, moss- and lichen-covered twigs, rose hips and holly for the wreathes and decorations that we hope will help remind our customers of the link between the cheese they’re tasting and the land that it came from.
Despite the chill, “dairy tea” continues as usual – with breaks being taken around the wooden table in the farmyard, come snow or shine. A round of tea, a few homemade biscuits (or cake on special occasions), and a chance to get into the very fresh air after being cooped up in the small dairy. At this time of year, the ‘make room’ is only a little warmer than the temperature outside, which today as I write is minus eleven. The maturing rooms remain at a constant twelve to fourteen degrees.
Maugan and Kim arrive at the farm early in the morning and begin the day by filling the jacket of the vat with water and bringing it up to temperature, taking cheese out of the (very cold) brine tank and, in turn, moving yesterday’s cheeses out of the presses and into the brine tank. Their day ends at around seven in the evening after the third pressing (the re-tightening of the cheese presses).
We all come together with a glass of wine at the end of the day in front of the wonderfully warm wood-burning stove, a chance to discuss the day and turn our thoughts to our own Christmas.
Our perfect Christmas cheeseboard is simple and versatile enough to survive numerous outings. It will sustain us through a week or so where we barely leave the farm and only venture out of the warmth to turn cheese and go for long wintry walks.
Rarely do we have more than three or four big cuts of cheese. These would always include a good chunk of spicy buttery Stichelton, a lovely piece of earthy mature cheddar such as Montgomery’s or Keen’s and of course our own creamy Gorwydd Caerphilly. Perhaps we will add a goat’s cheese or two to freshen up the cheeseboard after a day or so. A good sourdough, oatcakes or crisp bread and perhaps a couple of apples will be perfect accompaniments. They won’t take away from the wonderful flavours of the cheese but will go someway towards a palate cleanser in between.
If Jess’ descriptions make you hungry then you can order your Christmas cheeses from the Trethowans online. But be quick, last orders for Christmas are Wednesday 15th December. Or visit them at Borough market, or at their shop in Bristol. www.trethowansdairy.co.uk