Adopt a cheese: Pitchfork Cheddar

To better understand our producers and the cheeses we work closely with, our export and wholesale cheesemongers have each chosen a respected cheese to “adopt” and learn as much as they can about. Here we hear from Austin, who looks after our US export sales, about what he learned from the adopting Pitchfork Cheddar.  

Pitchfork Cheddar is my “adopted cheese”. Being one of the first cheesemongers to sell Pitchfork in the US and seeing its rising popularity, it was an easy decision for me. This past June I had the opportunity to visit the dairy and spend time with the brothers who make it. I got an inside look at the production of Pitchfork Cheddar, and the other cheese they make, Gorwydd Caerphilly.   

The farm where Pitchfork is made is in North Somerset just five miles from the village of Cheddar and twenty-five minutes from Bristol city centre. Brothers Todd and Maugan Trethowan relocated there from their family farm in West Wales in 2014. They had over 20 years of cheesemaking experience making their first cheese, Gorwydd Caerphilly.  

The cows behind the cheese

When making Gorwydd Caerphilly in Wales they were sourcing milk from various farms which had become problematic. Milk quality was the number one motivator for moving and having spent 18 months traveling around the UK in search of the best milk for cheesemaking, they found the ideal location for them at Puxton Park in Somerset. They now produce cheese using all organic milk from one single herd of cows consisting of 100 Holstein and 20 Jersey.  

The milking parlour is just a stone’s throw away from the make room and uses a gravity fed system gently guiding the milk directly into the milk tank. 3,000 litres of milk is collected for cheesemaking first thing every morning.  

With such a good milk supply so readily available, and now being based in the home of Cheddar, the introduction of Pitchfork Cheddar in 2017 was a natural step forward. The Trethowan brothers have a unique approach as they started with Caerphilly production and expanded into Cheddar making. Traditionally most cheesemakers began with Cheddar and branched out to Caerphilly as a quicker maturing cheese to bring to market sooner, thus supporting their cash flow.   

Once the milk is transferred into the vat, the starter culture, which is prepared the day before, is added. After experimenting with 9 different starters, they now rotate between three starters. They find MT 34 the most reliable for consistency,  offering a deep and round flavour. MT 36 (used in Kirkham's Lancashire and Stichelton) is sometimes used but primarily for Gorwydd production as it’s a shorter make compared to Pitchfork. The make time for Pitchfork is between 5-6 hours. This blog on starter culture gives a good overview of its role in the cheesemaking process. 

Adding the starter culture

Once the milk is set, at 32C, the animal rennet is added and within 50 minutes the curd is solidified. Pictured above is Ben using a strainer to evenly distribute the starter before cutting. Once the heat is turned off, fifteen minutes is spent cutting the curd before the mechanical paddles are put in motion and the vat is gradually heated up to 40C. While the paddles are moving, the curd is worked down into smaller pieces before being transferred to the draining table where the milling and Cheddaring process take place. 

Something I was not aware of before visiting was that Gorwydd and Pitchfork are both made three days a week using the same vat and each day is dedicated to making one or the other. Six days of making both Gorwydd and Pitchfork produce upwards of 90 tonnes of cheese per year which, for context, is roughly 10 tonnes less than Westcombe Dairy makes per year.

"loaves" of cheddar curd 

After the whey has been drained from the curd it’s then cut using large blunt knives to form the square shaped loaves as seen above. The draining table is where the curd is worked into square loaves and stacked to release moisture until they become very thin sheets resembling pizza dough. The cheddaring process plays a crucial role in texture and flavour. It is this that creates the standout characteristics of Pitchfork; that smooth, creamy paste with a deep and buttery flavour profile.  

Now begins the process where the flattened sheets are milled, salted and further broken down which ensures a consistent and smooth texture as the cheese ages. The ideal Pitchfork profile described by Todd and Maugan is 12-15 months in age, creamy, rich texture with a nice even body, savoury, brothy with a natural sweetness element.  

The name Pitchfork is influenced by the steel pitchforks used to toss the curd into the air releasing any moisture before being packed into moulds and pressed. From salting to tossing with pitchforks there is technique in every step and it was extremely impressive seeing these subtle details first hand.  

Once the curd is cut and salted it’s then packed into moulds and pressed over night. The next day they are dipped in scalding water before being larded and cloth binding applied. The young wheels are taken to the storeroom where they are turned every week for the first month and then turned monthy until they are selected for their respected markets. In the early days of Pitchfork production the wheels were stored at Westcombe Dairy to allow Todd and Maugan to focus all of their energy on cheesemaking and perfecting the recipe.  

Since my first trip to the Trethowan’s in early 2020, the amount of Pitchfork in their storeroom has quadrupled. I find it inspiring to share this opportunity and experience expanding on one of the most unique producers in Somerset.