IT'S THE WEEKEND: Blaenavon - new home of the big cheese
12:02pm Sunday 18th August 2013 in News
WHILE Caerphilly, perhaps Wales’ best known cheese is no longer made in the town bearing its name, Blaenavon’s answer is growing in popularity along with its home town. PETER MARSHALL and CHRIS WOOD investigate.
AFTER being set up to mark Blaenavon’s elevation on to a global stage, it is perhaps fitting that a locally-made cheese has now been enjoyed by European and World champions as well as one of the most easily-recognisable men on the planet.
The Blaenafon Cheddar Company was set up in 2006 after the town was made a world heritage site and the name of its most famous culinary export has grown alongside it.
Its Dragon’s Breath cheese was enjoyed by the Welsh rugby team after they scooped European titles in 2008 and 2013- the first a Grand Slam rounded off against the French and the second a battering of England to take the Six Nations title earlier this year.
World champion Formula One driver and legend of the track Michael Schumacher has also had a taste, while the company’s founder Susan Fiander-Woodhouse handed a block to Prince Charles during the Royal Welsh Show last month.
Last year 39,000 blocks of cheese were produced and sold around the world- not a bad achievement for a small family-run company that wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Mrs Fiander-Woodhouse’s vision.
Formerly employed by a large Abergavenny-based company, he saw the potential of capitalising on Blaenavon’s elevation to a World Heritage Site in 2006 and the increase in tourism and exposure this brings.
Mrs Fiander-Woodhouse approached her company about the prospect of launching a ‘small, intimate cheese company’, but says they weren’t keen.
So, she went it alone and in December launched the Blaenafon Cheddar Company. She describes it as: “A family-run business with no factories and no machines. Only a six feet by six feet room, some good old-fashioned elbow grease and a head full of cheese ideas.”
When she describes it as a “family business”, it is in every sense of the word. While she manages the company on a day-to-day basis and does the accounts, husband Gerry organises stocks, deliveries and is the company engineer.
He also runs the tourism side of the business, which involves organising mountain bike trips and hill walking- again, capitalising on Blaenavon’s name being on the world stage now.
Then there’s her son Terence Hill who is production manager and son-in-law Adam Green who is planning manager.
The process involves making cheese sausages that are wrapped in wax and then cut to create the 39,000 individual cheeses that are sold each year.
Along with the Pwll Mawr (Big Pit) which is matured at the bottom of an old mineshaft, there is Pwll Ddu (Blackpool) which is made with mustard, leeks and Reverend James ale and Dragons’ Breath which is made with hot chillis and Brains SA.
Mrs Fiander-Woodhouse added: “I am very proud of my little town and like to represent what we are all about.”
This is what she did when meeting Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall recently when they were at Llanelwedd for the 50th anniversary of the Royal Welsh Show being based permanently in the town.
“I made sure they didn’t leave empty-handed and gave them a special limited edition chjeese we created called Skirrid Pickle.
“Camilla thought it was amazing and I even told the bodyguards to keep their hands off as it was for the royals. I even had a chance to ask about the new arrival and Prince Charles was very excited to have a new grandchild. He was absolutely fabulous, very easy-going.”
Among the specialist cheese the company has made is Dragon’s Breath, which has been produced to commemorate Welsh success on the rugby field, while they also have one matured at the bottom of Blaenavon’s Big Pit and another infused with Penderyn whiskey.
While Mrs Fiander-Woodhouse’s company has gone to the world along with her home town, the next step in her masterplan is to bring the world to Wales.
The collaboration with companies such as Penderyn has led to the idea of a food trail around the country, which would give small scale producers constant promotion and allow tourists the opportunity to sample the best of what we have to offer.
Two of the main selling areas are Germany and France and with the cheeses also given the seal of approval by Italian chef Gino D’Acampo, Blaenavon is no longer simply known for its world heritage status.
In fact, Blaenavon could possibly be described as the cheese capital of Gwent as it is not just associated with one famous producer, but two.
Abergavenny Fine Foods, the family-owned business set up in 1981 is also based in the town now.
While the company’s headquarters moved to Blaenavon three years ago, production of its famous cheeses- including Y Fenni, which is Abergavenny in Welsh- still takes place in the town that gives it its name.
As well as Y Fenni cheese, others are named after nearby Tintern, Harlech and St Illtyd’s.
Cheeses have a long history in Wales and even featured in the laws made by King Hywel Dda around 880. In divorce settlements, those that were washed in brine went to the wife and those that were hung up went to the husband.
But, the most famous instance of cheese in Welsh history is probably Caerphilly- made from goat and sheep’s milk from around 1830. However, when demand outgrew its Welsh production in the early 20th century, it started being made in England instead.
Now it is produced in Lancashire, Shropshire and Cheshire.
Here are some other Welsh chesses for you to try:
* Red Dragon (Y Fenni)- Cow’s milk cheese made with Welsh brown ale and mustard seeds, nice on melted toast or with dark ale.
*Tintern- similar to cheddar but with chives and shallots. Good with beer.
* Acorn- an old-style recipe for English Wensleydale, best for eating out of hand or grating.
* Caerphilly- more crumbly and less buttery than Wensleydale, good with a crisp Chardonnay.
* Celtic Promise- modern vegetarian cheese, good with fresh cider.
* Llanboidy- the only cheese in Europe made from the milk of Red Poll cows, a rare pedigree breed. Good with sliced apples.
* Teifi - an organic, vegetarian cow’s milk cheese, adds a rich depth of flavour to cooked recipes.