Trethowan's Dairy





When the lovely folk at Source suggested Trethowan’s Dairy as a subject for the exhibition I was putting together there, it crossed my mind that I might be featuring too many cheese producers on the website. After a moment’s thought, I discounted that thought, because obviously there’s no such thing as too much cheese…

Around the back of Puxton Park is hardly where you expect to find the dairy making the famous Gorwydd Caerphilly. But here, the cheesemakers have the innovative arrangement of paying their rent to the farmers by paying a fair price for the milk they use. The herd contains 100 or so pedigree Holsteins, and about 20 Jerseys who up the butterfat content, and the milk is piped across from the milking parlour through a gravity feed directly into the dairy, ensuring it’s as fresh as can be.

Lucy meets me at the door, and after donning the now familiar jacket, hairnet and boots, I’m whisked off for a tour of the dairy. She starts at the point where the pipe enters the tank, using a gravity fed system. “The gravity system is very gentle - if you're too rough with the milk it damages the particles and the end product won't be as good,” she explains. The dairy itself was built in 2014, but the cheese has been made for 20 years. I ask how it all started. “Todd had worked at Neal’s Yard dairy and done a few apprenticeships with different cheesemakers, including one with Chris Duckett who made Caerphilly in Somerset,” she begins. “So he took that knowledge back to Wales and started making it on the family farm in 1996. His brother Maughan came on board very quickly after that, and it grew organically from there. A few years ago they decided they wanted a more secure milk supply, and they couldn't really find that in Wales because it was so remote. So they decided to look for a really good milk supply and move there, which is how we're here, and we started making cheese here in 2014. The farmers have been farming for generations and really know what they're doing; the milk is amazing. And we're part of the Puxton Park attraction; visitors can look in. Which is good for the kids, because they can learn more about where cheese comes from and how it’s made.”

Lucy describes the building as their ‘dream dairy’, and it’s not far from the truth. Able to design everything exactly how they want it, the layout and equipment is suited to their needs. From the shiny 3000 litre cheesemaking vat to the beautiful old presses, it’s a beautiful balance of modern and traditional. As Lucy points out, “It’s nice to have a bit of the old; some connection!”.

She talks me through the process. In the morning the milk is heated up, and the starter culture and rennet added. The curds are cut, and then it’s heated up a bit more. The unusual thing about this process is that the curds are stirred for about 50 minutes. “It toughens up the curd and they can really check the curds have been cut to the right size,” she explains, as we stand and watch two of the cheesemakers digging their arms deep into the tank to stir it. “It’s all done by hand, so it’s really backbreaking. But by the end of that process, the curd will be much tougher.” The whey is drained off, and then four people texture the curds by hand. Then the moulds are filled, again by hand. 

I ask how much cheese will come from the vat. “We get about a kilo of cheese per 10 litres, and the yield is slightly higher over the winter because the butterfat content goes up a bit with the diet. We’ll probably get about 320 kilos of cheese out of here,” Lucy tells me. They make 2 kg and 4 kg cheeses, with a bit of variation as they’re hand made. “After the moulds are filled, they go into the presses,” she explains. “We can stack up about 10 cheeses; two layers of 5 in each press. There's nothing mechanical about the pressing. A bit of guess work and a lot of experience; that's what it's all based on. We have this very drawn out process, we put them in the presses for 25 minutes, take them out, unwrap them from their cheese clothes, roll them in salt, wrap them up again and put them in the presses overnight. It's a labour intensive cheese to make!”

The next day, they’re put into the brine tank, where they sit for 24 hours. We move into the storage part of the building, where each room is full of shelf upon shelf of ageing cheeses. They turn the cheeses every day, especially when they’re young to help them mature more evenly. “We mature our cheese for ideally from 8-12 weeks. Some people prefer it a bit older, some people want it younger. It just depends where we're sending it. Our small deli customers generally want 12 week old because there's no further chain in the distribution; it's going straight into their counter.” She points out the different ages; from the smooth and white young cheeses to the wrinkled (apparently called the ‘brains’) and mould covered aged ones. 

We talk about the history of the cheese. “Caerphilly was traditionally sold very young; a week or so,” Lucy tells me as we walk through the rooms. “Lots of cheddar makers used to make it to keep cash flow going because its much quicker to mature. People always think Caerphilly is a Welsh cheese but it's not; a lot has been made in the West Country. Much was taken to Caerphilly market and sold there; I think that's where it gets its name from. That's a common misconception that we find ourselves explaining over and over.” One of the advantages of Caerphilly is that it can be made year round, with a pretty consistent result. 

They supply small delis in and around Bristol, then a lot of restaurants and delis through their wholesalers. They also sell to Waitrose too, and have just started supplying M&S Deli Counters. “We've been in Waitrose for years and years, so we've got a pretty good relationship with them,” Lucy explains. November and December are predictably busy months for them; “It’s a very authentic-looking cheese that looks great on a cheeseboard at Christmas!” as Lucy points out. But 20 years experience means they’ve got the timings down pretty well. “We try to predict what demand will be like 2-3 months down the line, so we’re making for that demand. So September/October will always be busier months of making in preparation for Christmas,” she tells me. 

What does the future of Trethowan’s Dairy look like? “We've tried to future proof the building so we can cope with increased production,” Lucy tells me. “And we've been experimenting with washed rind, which has had really great feedback.” My cheese education over, I head home, safe in the knowledge that Caerphilly isn't actually a Welsh cheese, and definitely agreeing that it does indeed look good on a cheeseboard...

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