Sam Holden at Hafod Farm Dairy

As you drive up the track towards Bwlchwernen Fawr farm, the road steepens and all around you are dramatic views of polygon shaped, emerald fields dissected by native hedges and trees, dotted with cows and sheep. I have come to Ceredigion, to see the making of Hafod organic cheddar cheese, created by Sam and Rachel Holden, from their family’s herd of Ayrshire cows in a remote and peaceful part of the west Wales countryside. You would never find their dairy without an Ordnance Survey map and plenty of courage, and as the car ascends up the narrow farm path, I hold my breath in case a big tractor where to come from round the corner.

As you arrive the very first sight that greets you is a surprisingly modern, purpose-built, timber and glass dairy building adjacent to the main farm yard, not at all what one would expect in such an ancient landscape. It was opened in 2008 by HRH The Prince of Wales, a close friend of Sam’s father, Patrick Holden, the former director of the Soil Association and now founder of the Sustainable Food Trust. Inside the dairy all of the equipment, walls, floors and surfaces still look brand new, testimony to the care and attention to detail that was taken when designing and creating this large and expensive unit. There is a pristine resin floor which slopes towards one central drain in the middle of the dairy. Every surface is spotlessly clean. To the sides of the dairy is a small kitchen and a bigger room which Sam hopes to turn into a staff room. There is also a small office corner which looks into the dairy, and from here Sam and Rachel run the administration of the business, a Monty Python photograph of the “Blessed are the cheesemakers” photo beaming down. Sam told me he had quite a bit of help from cheese making friends and colleagues.

“In the beginning, when Rachel and I started as cheesemakers, we had left corporate jobs in order to live on the farm and add value to the milk that was being produced here. There were so many cheesemakers who helped us in the creation of Hafod. We took a leap of faith in starting the business, because in the beginning you are deeply committed financially– you have to wait for 12 months before cheddar cheese matures and that means it is 12 months before you can sell anything. People like Randolph Hodgson of Neal’s Yard, James Montgomery of Montgomery’s cheddar, Tom Carver of Westcombe cheddar, Joe Schneider of Stichelton and Simon Jones of Lincolnshire Poacher were all instrumental in giving me the advice, recipes, help and support we needed. Randolph shared his inspiration of the cheedar cheese making “bible” written by Dora Saker in 1917, which we still use to this day. Although, technically, we are direct competition to other cheese makers, in fact, we found that everyone was really welcoming and helpful, it’s like a big family.”

Sam is now on the committee of the Specialist Cheese Makers Association, whose members regularly come together to discuss the highs and lows of cheesemaking, comparing notes and swopping ideas, helping to raise the profile of the British cheesemaking crafts. Sam had always been determined to learn the craft and develop his skills without the name “Holden” being a golden key to open the door into the inner sanctum of cheesemakers at the highest level.

“All of the cheesemakers I spoke to told me not to use my surname in the name of the cheese. I had to produce cheese on my own merit, not because of who my father is.”

Patrick had been farming organically here since 1973, living in a commune on the farm. Over the years he managed to negotiate a farming lease with the landlord, which ultimately led him to becoming the owner of the 135 acre farm with an Ayrshire dairy herd of 70 cows in 2005. Patrick still does some of the milking at weekends, commuting from his other house in Bristol. He lives in the farmhouse across the dairy yard, with his wife Becky and four young children. His four children from his first marriage have all gone into agriculture or the food business: oldest son Tom is a self-employed chef and pop-up restaurant organiser, second-in line Barley Rose lives in London and works for the Soil Association and the youngest daughter Alice works for Growing Communities fruit and vegetable box scheme in London.

In his dairy, Sam looks out through huge windows into the surrounding landscape, stretching for miles into the horizon, an undulating carpet of lush, green grass with a pale Welsh sky above. If an urbanite were to be transplanted here, this lifestyle, viewed through rose tinted glasses, might seem bucolically perfect. The herdsman walks past, the herd of cows trundling behind him in single, patient file into a different field. Ayrshire cows have a five or six year life span, although some of the cows in this closed herd are notably older. They are very hardy and fed completely on organic pastures, chewing their way through buttercups, clover and wildflowers as they go, producing just 4500 litres of milk a year per cow. This raw milk is rich and creamy and fuller in flavour than milk produced by intensively reared Friesian cows {the normal dairy breed}, which are often made to produce more than double that quantity of milk over their very short life spans: they are quite literally milked to death.

The conversion ratio in cheesemaking is normally is 1:10, so in order to produce 1kg of cheese 10 litres of milk are required, and each wheel of Hafod is 10 kg in weight. The teak-stainless steel vat contains 1000 litres of raw milk, and Sam and Rachel make cheese every single day, seven days a week, with just two helpers. The day starts at 7 am and does not finish until 6 pm, and they have two very small children, aged just 3 and 1, to take care of. In total 3000 Hafod cheeses are produced each year, weighing between 25 and 30 tons. The grit and determination required to stay the course is unwavering but Sam does not regret his decision, nor does he ever challenge the end goal.

“Making cheese is an intensely personal business, and one that you have to believe in completely. When you work for such long hours in this business, you are producing something you care very deeply about. There is no food like cheese, it draws such strong opinions. We don’t do as many fairs and festivals now as we used to in the early days, but I remember people coming to the stall and tasting the cheese and telling me exactly what they thought of it – it is a very raw and personal experience. I want to produce the very best cheddar, from the best milk, from the best cows in the best pastures. Yes, taste is a very subjective matter, but if you consider the purity of the raw ingredients that go into Hafod, then we should be able to achieve our goals.”

Not to be beguiled by the awards and accolades that the dairy has won, in particular from the Welsh True Taste Award scheme, which champions local Welsh producers and showcases their talents, Sam explained the challenges they have had to overcome in order to meet these goals. From mistakes made with the recipe, to supermarkets that either promise orders that never materialise or decide suddenly to cancel orders without discussion to the vagaries of Defra, farming life vicissitudes and the weather, each day brings its own hills to climb. The financial struggles are considerable, and when all of the numbers are added up, the end result is not for the faint hearted or those seeking fast lucre for minimum effort. Many dairy farmers and cheesemakers have gone out of business in these Welsh hills. All over Britain it is calculated that a dairy farmer leaves the industry every single day, the financial hardship of persevering in an industry where outgoings can far outweigh income and an economy where consumers pursue increasingly cheaper food, too great to bear. Sam described the harsh reality of financing an artisan business.

“This dairy cost £160 000 to build, and we were fortunate enough to get a 40% grant from the Welsh Assembly. We get £10 per kilo of cheese, but it needs to stay in the maturing room for around 12 months, so in the meantime all our cashflow is tied up in machinery and stock. We need to be charging around 20% more than what we charge to wholesalers and distributors, but the problem is that the public perception of cheddar needs to change. It is viewed as a commodity product, whereas artisanally made, organic cheddar is a special product. I cannot command the sort of prices that a Comte cheesemaker may charge, even though a cheddar cheese takes 12 hours to make and 12 months to mature. Some Comte cheeses take three hours to make and sell in four months, costing £30 – £40 per kilo. Cheddar is sold normally for just £16 – £25 per kilo.”

The physical fitness required to be an artisanal cheese maker is also undeniable, and the long days offer little in the way of time off or breaks. As soon as Sam arrives in the dairy he has to start the stirring of the milk in the teak and stainless steel vats, followed by the calculation of the culture and rennet he needs to add. I watch as he adds the lumpy, creamy yoghurt-like starter culture and later the pale brown animal rennet mixture into the vat, the stainless steel arms and paddles stirring in the liquid mix, small globules of fat arising on the surface. The milk is then left to set still during its coagulation period of one hour. When the curds and whey are separated the former are cut into very small, pea sized pieces, the latter is drained and partly used to feed a few pigs on the farm, and partly laid on the land, to nourish the soil. The central tenet of organic farming is to ensure the fertility and health of the soil for high mineral content. Nothing is wasted on the farm, everything is recycled.

The curds stick to a base mat and are eventually cut into 64 blocks. They are stacked and put through a mill. A mineral salt from Cheshire is added and mixed in thoroughly. The curds are pressed for an hour and then, at the very end of the day, they are turned. They will stay pressed in the moulds for 48 hours, and then turned out, trimmed and wrapped in a cotton cloth, which allows the cheese to breathe. They are then transferred into the cheese maturing rooms next door.

I watch as Chris Bellamy, the storeman, trims and neatens the outer edges of the cheese with a potato peeler and knife. The trimmings go to feed the farm’s chickens. The cheeses look beautifully fresh and buttery yellow in colour, the taste still bland and unripe. Every three months they are rubbed by hand and turned every two weeks. In total each cheese needs to be turned 25 times, with a beady eye or two open for the threat of tiny little cheese mites, the cheesemaker’s scourge. They have no natural predator.

We go into the maturing room, and in front of us are row upon row of Hafod wheels, at various stages of maturation, from buttery white to khaki green in mould, the smell of damp, cold fermentation all around us. Sam made these yellow pine wood racks himself, and they alone are a feat of human creativity, endurance and skill, let alone their contents.

“In this storage room we are trying to emulate a cave. So we need to keep 90% air humidity,” he tells me. In one corner we see some of the cheeses that Sam has produced in conjunction with Randolph Hodgson and his partner Jemima, who is a micro-biologist. He tells us how the Neal’s Yard affineurs are extremely firm in their advice, telling him, in a constructive manner, where the mellowness, subtlety, complexity and balance in the flavours need to improve. Making the perfect cheddar is the cheese-geek Holy Grail, and in this silent, fermenting sepulchre are the hopes and dreams of a family intent on success and stability. The restraints on business growth are all around us, however: they are called acres.

“The size of the business is dependent on the size of land, and land is expensive and difficult to buy around here. Traditionally, when dairy farms have been sold, the house with its garden and the land are separated at auction and the farm land is bought by neighbouring farmers who are trying to consolidate their holdings. Farms need to get bigger in order to become more viable. We are farming in total nearly 200 acres, as we rent land as well as own it, and from a dairy turnover of £300 000 a year, I am hoping to get to a profit of £20 000. It is not a scalable business: growth is the measure of business success and profitability, but with artisanally produced food small is usually the norm.”

Hafod is now stocked by all the great and the good of the cheese retailing world, its fine, grassy, deep flavours lending themselves well to the discerning foodie and restaurant cheeseboards. It is also excellent in cooking, used to make bechamel sauces, macaroni cheese, pies and tarts. There are more and more cookery schools and wine merchants now organising classes teaching how to match cheeses, preserves, wines, beers, ales and even champagnes. I am surprised that Sam does not like chutneys, preserves or pickles to interfere with his slice of cheese. It stands to reason that a man who lives with a food product every day of the week should not want its characteristics undermined or overwhelmed, however.

“I eat Hafod every day and I do not really like too many dominant flavours to interfere with its natural taste. I like to eat it with just a plain slice of sourdough bread, which I make from the Hobbs House Bakery mother ferment. I also like a glass of freezing beer or ale with it. In particular I love the Kernel Brewery beers from underneath the arches in Bermondsey, where Neal’s Yard store their cheeses.”

Despite all the difficulties and worries, when I ask Sam what his reaction would be if his young children grew up and said that they too would like to enter the family business, his response is quick.

“I would love it. Making something for other people to eat and enjoy gives a very basic, human sense of satisfaction. We have made so many really good friends through making cheese and we have learned so many interesting things. Often I go out and look at other businesses, and when I return I look around the farm and I look at the dairy here and I know there is nowhere else I would rather be.”

Further Information

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