I thought I must have tasted Caerphilly. I mean, how could I not have? It’s up there with Cheddar and Cheshire and Stilton as a traditional British cheese. It even has its own joke (don’t tell me you don’t know it). But what I vaguely recollected was a dull crumbly white cheese so when I happened to mosey past Gorwydd’s stand at Borough Market and saw their great rindy wheels of squidgy ivory loveliness, I was perplexed. In the name of research I thought I’d better try some. Then in the name of greediness I thought I’d better buy a chunk and take it away with me.
Here it is, happy in its new home, showing off a bit with its frilly rind:
Caerphilly is a traditional Welsh cheese, named after the town in the south of the country where it was sold at market. Gorwydd Caerphilly is made from unpasteurised cow’s milk by the Trethowan family in Ceredigion. They produce the cheese with hardly any mechanisation; from stirring the milk to cutting the curds and turning the finished cheeses during a two month maturation period, each process is carried out by hand to produce the perfect texture. But such love hasn’t always been lavished on Caerphilly cheese.
To learn the story of Caerphilly is to learn the story of the people, communities and nations that made and ate it. Originally produced in the nineteenth century as a way for farmers to use up excess milk, it became popular with Welsh miners; a salty cheese, it replaced the sweat they lost through graft and, possessed of a thick rind, they could hold it in their mucky paws. But when cheese-making became mechanised and the advent of the railways meant that excess milk could be transported cross-country, production of the cheese declined before finally grinding to a halt during World War Two when the government ordered all milk to be diverted into Cheddar production.
Post-war, the Cheddar-makers over the border continued to produce Caerphilly apace, as the Welsh cheese could be churned out (dairy pun there for you) much faster than Cheddar. The cheese began to lose its subtlety and became the bland crumbly cheese that I remembered eating. Fortunately for cheese-lovers, a last bastion of artisan Caerphilly still existed down in Somerset and it was to this artisan, Chris Duckett, that Cornwall-born Todd Trethowan turned when he decided to resurrect the farmhouse cheese that he remembered his Welsh grandmother making. After a six-month apprenticeship in a camper van in Duckett’s llama field, Trethowan was ready to begin and Gorwydd’s Caerphilly was launched in 1996 (we still await his range of llama cheeses).
Cheese, like wine, has tasting notes and I am often equally confused by both, failing to detect the jasmine or cinnamon or Liquorice Allsorts or what have you. But Gorwydd’s Caerphilly tastes exactly like everyone says it should – remarkably so. The chalkier centre tastes fresh and lemony, the creamier stripe towards the edge tastes of mushrooms and the rind is earthy and mucky-tasting (in a good way). It’s like a lovely cheesy Battenburg without a hint of the tasteless crumble I took to be Caerphilly.
Oh – and the joke? How do you approach an angry Welsh cheese? Caerphilly! Tish-boom!