9 May 2014

Hafod: taking it slow

It only takes a few weak rays of sunshine for Brits to start flashing the flesh and breaking out the flip-flops, but that's nothing compared to the delirium of cows when spring arrives. According to Sam Holden of Holden Farm Dairy in West Wales, setting the cows loose in the fields for the first time after the winter is one of the great moments in a farmhouse cheesemaker's year.

“They go absolutely bonkers, literally galloping into the field, udders swaying,” he says. “They charge around, roll in the grass and go completely crazy. Anyone who tells you cows don't mind being permanently housed, haven't seen it for themselves.”

Holden and his wife Rachel make a cheddar-style organic cheese called Hafod (pronounced Havod), which has a distinctive rich, buttery flavour. By the time you read this article, the herd of 100 or so Ayrshire cows will have already made the happy dash to freedom and will be grazing on the farm's lush pastures, which have been under organic stewardship for more than 40 years. 
Rachel and Sam Holden

Sam's father Patrick Holden was the director of organic lobby group Soil Association for many years and first came to the farm in the early 70s. The cheesemaking business was set up in 2005 with a commitment to using raw milk, but was forced to pasteurise in March 2012 after TB was detected in the area. The farm's cows has been subject to strict but infuriatingly inconclusive skin tests ever since, which have led to 27 cows (almost a third of the milking herd) being culled. This despite the fact that TB has never actually found in any of the animals. 

The good news is that the farm is expecting to receive the all clear very soon, which will mean an immediate return to raw milk. It's been a difficult experience for the Holdens, but it has also made them reassess what they do in a positive way. “Milk is incredibly complex, made up of fats, proteins and bacterial activity,” says Holden. “I realise now that those other parts of the milk, the fat and the protein and not only the bacteria, are just as important.”

Not being able to use raw milk was one of the reasons why Holden switched from using freeze dried cultures to a liquid 'pint' starter, which he says have added amazing complexity to the pasteurised milk. 

“There is a much broader range of bacteria in the pint starters, so you get more breadth of flavour,” he explains. “It's a slow ripening period – two hours compared to 20 minutes and we use a lot less heat – which allows the bacteria to transform the sugars in the milk much more slowly, so more flavour develops. It's a pain to be honest – an extra two hours on our day – but I genuinely think it makes a big difference to our cheese.”

* To continue reading this article, a version of which first appeared in the April 2014 issue of Fine Fod Digest, click here

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