The great Welsh cheese-off: seven of the nation’s finest undiscovered cheeses face off in a taste-off, but which will be a cut above?

Despite all those cows and sheep scattered across the green hillsides, when it comes to naming famous Welsh cheeses most will get stumped right after Caerphilly. This National Cheese Day, we have hand-picked three of the many multi-award winning cheese producers across the country, each of which have hand-picked between one and three of their most iconic cheeses – we have (extensively!) tasted each, compared and contrasted, and below are the results. And yes, there is a winner! Next time your thoughts and taste buds turn to Wales and to cheese, you’ll know a little more about the curd-rich choices out there.

The cheesemakers taking part? Whey-out-of-the-ordinary Blaenafon Cheddar Company, based out of Blaenavon in the Valleys, eclectic cheese creators Holden Farm Dairy from near Llangybi, in Mid Wales and wondrous trucklers Caws Cenarth crafting their wares in the pastures on the borders of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.

We (along with two other volunteer tasters) went milder through to stronger on this Welsh cheese flight, in accordance with cheese-tasting guidelines from the experts, and so, in the order we tasted:

1: PERL WEN

Producer: Caws Cenarth

©Kerry Walker

From the outer packaging, this creamy, white-rinded cheese was not our favourite of the contestants – although at Undiscovered Wales we do admit to having a penchant for feisty cheeses – so it is to Perl Wen’s credit that, cutting into it, our opinions could be so swayed.  Perl Wen translates as ‘white pearl’ in English so it is apt that to really relish this cheese, you have to dive deep into its flavours. The rind, like the bumpy limed wall of an old country cottage, secretes a buttery soft centre that moulds to the contours of your eagerly clasping hands but does not break shape, allowing the interior to trickle pleasingly over tongue and throat whilst slowly emitting a delicate but definite hit of almost lemony sharpness. We cannot help leaving this cheese with lingering visions in our heads of April-May walks in a verdant upland, nowhere too harsh or rugged, under intermittent bursts of sunshine but with a breeze in our faces strong enough to term invigorating. Interestingly, the word ‘dappled’ crops up from two of the tasters when describing what sampling Perl Wen conjures in their minds, perhaps again related to that sharpness, the cheese-tasting equivalent of a particularly radiant light sluicing through a tree’s branches to someone lying in the shade beneath. The tart notes, as it churns out, come from the Caerffili (Caerphilly is the anglicised version) which was the starting point for Caws Cenarth creating this one – the company became renowned as the first artisan producer to take back Caerffili for the Welsh after standard production moved to England post-WW2. This is why the tartness comes across so convincingly. Caerffili very much in Brie clothing, but with that little gust of something different which brie often lacks. Now back to that trickling sensation. That’s what stays with you. Pleasing pantry custardness. But a winner? Well, six more to try…

2: GOLDEN CENARTH

Producer: Caws Cenarth

©Kerry Walker

With Golden Cenarth we were aware pre-taste of being in the presence of a champion – a supreme champion, indeed, at the British Cheese Awards – and of course this perks us up and forces us to attune our palates for the occasion. And this cheese looks like a champion: a mottled round exuding rusticity that would make you convinced, when considering any special cheese selection, that this should be one of the ones to grace your board. The undulating pin-cushion feel of the rind alternating between dusky yellow and snowdrop white in hue intimates what is in store within: a silky, almost liquidous cheese which makes for one messy but marvellous eating adventure, even though spillage is contained to some degree by the pot it comes in. Leave Golden Cenarth part-finished in the fridge and when you next return it will resemble a mini lava flow from a volcano. Of course, cheeses like this which err on the runny side of soft and introduce themselves with an inviting pungency in aroma and flavour both are common in France, but in Britain much less so. In fact, consistency-wise and taste-wise, Golden Cenarth is very much the exception in British cheese. Hilariously, it was invented by accident when Carwyn at Caws Cenarth noticed an old piece of Caerffili was beginning to turn softer, but at the end of the day Caws Cenarth harnessed chance to engineer cheese delight, a delight all four of us tasters decided deserves heaps of plaudits for being bold and different, an ambassador cheese that cries ‘haha, you would never have believed Wales could make this, but look!’ Actually, the tasting with Golden Cenarth begins wetly, mildly and creamily, bowls of custard and cornfields in the rain, with the hoped-for socky pungency a later development and the last curdy word being that of the absolutely divine rind. This, washed in cider apparently, is firm, substantial and full of silvery confidence – so firm that it would certainly flourish when baked. Professional party planners will laud Golden Cenarth’s countryside chic look even if they lament a liquidity that makes for very gooey gatherings, but individual bingers will reap the rewards by indulging. This one almost expects to make finals wherever its wedges get sampled, and it just might here, too…

3: PERL LÂS

Producer: Caws Cenarth

©Kerry Walker

Oh, if the blue-veined Perl Lâs was a person it would be venerable, weathered, mad-looking, all-heads-in-a-room-turningly dominant; if it were a place it would be the pockmarked dreamscape of a fantasy planet. If outward appearances are anything to go by, that is. Cut through the ashy, lunar-like crust and fox-in-the-far-distance mustiness assails the nostrils. A certain barnyardish hay-in-an-antiquated-stables element, perhaps. But in few other ways is this a conventional blue cheese. The body is almost dandelion yellow, the consistency Edam-firm. As a cross-section once we tasters have cut out our hunks, the blue-green veins played across the face of the cheese with paper doily playfulness in fissures but just as often in rice-sized bubbles. No surprises, then, that texturally this one scores highly amongst all four of us tasters, and we like the bitter notes singing out loud and clear from those bulbous bruise-hued fissures and bubbles. For us, these are the only notes Perl Lâs does hit, and from the exterior and aroma we are expecting more. But we do recognise that personal preference is a huge thing, that this one came in sequence after two very moist and exceptionally flavour-packed contestants and that this one is widely regarded as being very much at the helm of Welsh blue cheese production. Given the punch of its predecessor, though, it’s going to be tough for this to make our number one.

4: TAFFY APPLE

Producer: Blaenafon Cheddar Company

©Kerry Walker

Blaenafon Cheddar Company just make cheddar, as the name implies, but their nine varieties still have the palate running every which way, and a tasting even of the three we sample is one action-packed affair. Taffy Apple, gold medalist at the International Cheese Awards, announces from a good few centimetres off that it was more than willing to make us tasters go the distance – all the way from a sunny late afternoon garden to a chilly verge-of-winter night in front of a bonfire display, no less. Under its yellow waxy facade, Taffy Apple diffuses all the smells and conjures all the sights of a Guy Fawkes Night extravaganza, not just the sweetness of toffee apple but a sizzling-hot-dog-lathered-in-barbecue-sauce-and-stuffed-with-fried-onions aroma too and, most importantly perhaps, a big sparkly bang of fun. The importance attached to aroma is often side-stepped or just plain overlooked in cheese tastings, and all too often a good smell segues into an average taste or vice versa, but Taffy Apple ushers the taster smoothly through into a realm of flavour that is yet more friends-gathered-at-a-fireworks-display, only better. Better because now a ruddy creaminess coats the roof of your mouth and clings there, a feature common to many flavoured cheddars, but the more appreciated here because Taffy Apple has captivated two senses in ways that complement each other. Onion marmalade and Hurns Brewery Taffy Apples cider come together on song to create a fruity final impression that soars whey above shallow and gimmicky novelty cheddars and makes, when the time arrives, for an impassioned debate amongst cheese tasters lucky enough to have had a morsel pass their lips. Taffy Apple has had profound enough effects on us to be up there in the final reckoning, but can it be best on the board?

5: DRAGONS BREATH

Producer: Blaenafon Cheddar Company

©Kerry Walker

A dragon does not attempt to hide that it blows flames and nor does Dragons Breath. It promises fire (along with booze – Cardiff’s SA Brains ale actually) and delivers. Yes, and we have to marvel at its appearance too. A wine-red coat falls waxily away to reveal a crazily colourful cross-section reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock painting: dashes of black pepper, creamy wedges of garlic and red splashes of chilli on a gaudy orange background. Special, you think, mouth watering, although the smell, despite a vaguely vinegarish whiff, is quite subtle. But perhaps this is more aspiring Pollock than actual Pollock because somehow the flavours, whilst each undoubtedly has its place in a cheese somewhere, did not connect like some of the other contestants did on the canvas itself. The suggestion of vinegar explodes smack bang wallop on the tongue, and the chilli does do a dance a bit later in the show but overall? Extravagant, flamboyant, sensory and impressive but… well, perhaps we’re still in awe, or shock, or something. It’s down in our diary as a festive pleaser, but whilst we know we are going against a Great Taste Gold Award here given by cheese tasters far more accomplished than us, we don’t think it reached up to the blazing heights of Taffy Apple.

6: HAFOD

Producer: Holden Farm Dairy

©Kerry Walker

A late-comer to the contest (so late it didn’t get its picture in the intro shot), Holden Farm Dairy, Wales’ longest certified organic dairy farm, only produce one cheese – their Hafod Welsh organic cheddar – but what a cheese it is. To really get these guys, you do have to be furnished with a little back-story to truly appreciate them – they hand-make their cheese from the milk of their 80-strong herd of Ayrshire cows (ideally suited to the terrain of the farm, apparently) using old-school techniques of cheese production before the industrialisation of the cheese-making process (corroborated by a book from 1917). The result is a cheese that is much an epitome of the terroir of the pea-green, undulating Mid Wales hills as can be, and each piece is different in taste, dependent on which field the cows are grazing in, the weather and the season. We tasters get to sample a 15-month old batch from February 2019. The look of Hafod is starkly different to the other contestants – in a wedge rather than a round. The rind resembles the middle of a supernova in its burnished red-brown-orange hue: it looks like a large jar of paprika has been spilt accidentally-on-purpose artistically all over. The aroma we tasters get is an oh-so-nutty one, and when you nibble in to its butterscotch innards nuttiness is again apparent, with an almost Italian Pecorino-like consistency. But earthiness and rolling-down-a-just-scythed-meadow-grassiness ping through as well, and as you munch, what becomes clear about Hafod is that it does not simply vary wedge to wedge, but also within the wedge. One taster claims to glean an almost liqueur-like aroma from their sample; another swears the taste was grittily earthy and salty but not grassy whatsoever; a third detects Marmite amongst the medley of aftertastes! Then again, the discord is probably justified: a farm possesses myriad smells and tastes and perhaps there is a little of all of the above in our tasters’ analysis. But the overall flavour is sustained – it sharply hits notes in the same key – and the lasting effect on the palate is quite dry, complexly mature and with a zing that bounces off the sides of your mouth, refusing to be restricted by mere words. This un-pin-down-ability, of course, generates perhaps the lengthiest and most enthused debate amongst us tasters of any of the seven cheeses. Enough for victory? There is still one more to try…

7: PWLL MAWR

Producer: Blaenafon Cheddar Company

©Kerry Walker

We know the pros don’t really recommend more than five cheeses to taste at a single sitting, and it’s little wonder that by the time cheese seven lands on our plates we are cheesed out. Even the palate cleansers in-between samples aren’t having the same effect. But we have saved what would seem on paper to be the feistiest until the very end. Pwll Mawr promises to be a bit like the final chariot race in Ben Hur where, after having slumped in your seat somewhat due to the sheer length of the thing, you sit bolt upright again for one last frenzy. This round of cheese is a victor on visuals, black-waxed with a slick image of old mining apparatuses as the ‘cover image’ which is a big hint as to where Pwll Mawr gets matured: 300 feet below ground level at the bottom of the Big Pit, once one of South Wales’ key coal pits and now an amazing visitor attraction. But simply plonking Pwll Mawr in such a history-rich setting would never be enough, and nor would be fact this one has won bronze at the International Cheese Awards: not against the hot competition the four of us had sampled. So in we bit. With no smell beyond the expected of a mature cheddar, with none of Taffy Apple’s verve or Dragon Breath’s flamboyance, Pwll Mawr – how can we put it – asserts itself instantly as a cheese a taster needs to respect. Moist enough on the tongue, it nevertheless sports a rich gravy-like granularity. It is nights-amongst-rocks-millions-of-years-old timelessness and goes down with a Michelin-starred steak sauce salty creaminess: surprisingly heavy when it fills the stomach not quite as a meal, perhaps, but certainly as a sizeable hors-d’oeuvre. A cheese of real substance, all four of us tasters felt.

And the winner is…   

We have to put Golden Cenarth, Taffy Apple, Hafod and Pwll Mawr immediately into a four-way final. But at the end of the whey, whilst all four of these have distinguished themselves on national and international stages, we felt there was one that assailed the senses that little bit more. So we announce  – by the thinnest of wedges – Taffy Apple as our Welsh cheese champion this National Cheese Day!

Buy the Cheese

Under normal circumstances, we would recommend a visit to the Caws Cenarth Visitor Centre and shop at their production centre out in the rolling hills on the border between Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire. Or checking out pretty Holden Farm Dairy (Bwlchernen Farm, Llangybi, near Lampeter, SA488PS). Or a visit to Unesco World Heritage-listed Blaenavon in the Valleys just off the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons, and to Blaenafon Cheddar Company’s shop. But whilst travel restrictions remain you can get a huge hit of the flavours of Wales these cheeses impart by buying all at the Welsh Cheese Company.

READ ON: Now you’re into Welsh cheeses, it’s maybe time to get into Welsh BBQ with Barry Island’s griddle-tastic Sam and Shauna of Hang Fire (with their own BBQ TV show, no less)

©Kerry Walker