Part of what makes Formaggio Kitchen such a special place to work, as you may have gleaned from our other posts, is that our products, and our cheeses in particular, are sourced directly from producers and affineurs rather than second or third hand via American importers and distributors. As you can imagine, if you’ve seen our cheese selection, this is a pretty enormous task, so several of us play a part. My role, among other things, is that of British Isles cheese buyer. We buy all our British cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy, the premier affineurs and distributors of British cheese in the UK. I speak directly with them after they’ve tasted through every batch of cheese and select all our cheeses based on what they tell me from their tasting notes. It’s as close as I could possibly come to actually tasting through batches myself.
Recently, a lot of the hype at Neal’s Yard Dairy has been about a new cheese from Wales called Hafod. I’m pretty excited, as it is the first new cheese that’s become available since I took on the role of British Isles cheese buyer, so I’d love to say a bit about the rather cool story behind it.
Hafod (pronounced “Havod”) is a firm cow’s milk cheese made by Sam and Rachel Holden on Bwlchwernen Fawr in Wales. The couple started making cheese around 2007, but their farm has kept a dairy herd of Ayrshire cows for over 30 years and is actually the longest-standing registered organic farm in the UK. In fact, Sam’s father and owner of the property, Patrick Holden, is the director of the Soil Association, a UK organization deeply involved in the promotion and certification of organic farming.
While Hafod is a recent arrival on the cheese scene, it comes with a deep history in the world of cheese which illustrates the strength of a tightly knit community of cheese makers. Dougal Campbell learned cheese making in Switzerland and in the late 70’s he brought that knowledge back to Wales and started making cheese at Bwlchwernen Fawr. He produced a well-respected cheese called T’yn Grug that borrowed from the traditions of both English cheddars and Swiss mountain cheeses. In the midst of his tenure at Bwlchwernen, he taught his craft to others such as Simon Jones who today makes another famous English cheese called Lincolnshire Poacher. After Campbell’s sudden death in 1995, it was Sam and Rachel, under the tutelage of Simon Jones, who took up the reigns and worked carefully to craft a cheese of their own.
Though Hafod uses a Poacher recipe as its core, there are variations in its make that give it a distinct texture, aroma and flavor. The cool, moist climate of the area promotes slow-growing, richer flavored grass for the cows to graze on, and the Ayrshire milk, due to its physical properties, lends itself to a richer, more buttery final product.
As for the name, Hafod is a district of the city of Swansea, Wales, and lies just outside the city center in the north of the city. The word hafod is Welsh for ‘summer dwelling’ or ‘farm’, and refers to the seasonal cycle of transhumance – the movement of livestock and people from a lowland winter pasture at the main residence to a higher summer pasture from roughly May through October.
The first wheel of Hafod we received was a great example. The wheel was aged about 15 months and, with its dusky cloth-wrapped exterior, it could be mistaken for a traditional English cheddar, but it has a more tightly knit texture and its flavors are more on the buttery side with a nice fruity tang on the finish. While a more subtle experience than the Keen’s and Montgomery cheddars we sell, Hafod showcases the rich, organic Ayrshire milk beautifully – floral, fruity and buttery with a milky tang. It pairs wonderfully with beer (anything from Pilsners to Saisons to IPAs) or light, fruity red wines (Beaujolais, for example).
Since Hafod is a new cheese, the Holdens and the folks at Neal’s Yard Dairy are still feeling it out. They are thrilled with how well the cheese is showing now, but I would expect that there will be some variation in wheels to come. We are excited to see what’s to come and you should be too. Come check it out, and let us know what you think.
Ilhan Zeybekoglu is a veteran cheesemonger and works at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.