The Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) is an organisation for cheesemakers, retailers and wholesalers who are united in the pursuit of excellence in cheese. It supports members with technical, health and hygiene problems and is also a forum for community-building and the exchange of ideas. Each year, the SCA holds their annual general meeting at one of its member's farms. This provides a time for members to come together to share knowledge and socialise with other cheese specialists.
This year, the host farm was Bwlchwernen Fawr home to Holden Farm Dairy near Lampeter, who produce Hafod Cheddar. Situated in the rolling hills and valleys of West Wales, it was an ideal scene for inspiring discussions and to get away from the stresses and strains that the last 18 months of Covid-19 have brought.
The SCA provides a supportive, collegiate atmosphere that nurtures new cheesemakers. Every year at the farm visit, the winner of the James Aldridge Award for best British raw milk cheese is announced. This year the winner was Carrie Rhimes who makes Brefu Bach, a small sheep's milk cheese made in Northern Wales. The award is so coveted within the community because it is judged by fellow cheesemakers and to win it is a real acknowledgement from the winner's peers of their efforts. Carrie was the recipient of the SCA's Dougal Campbell Bursary in 2017 which provided her with funding and support to develop her young business. Now four years on, she's received the prestigious accolade of Brefu Bach being rated so highly by established cheesemakers. After such a precarious 18 months that has tested many small food producers in Britain and Ireland, it is more important than ever to support new cheesemakers and ensure that we are a growing community. Cashel Blue was also recognised by the SCA as the Patron's Award for Best Artisan Cheese. This award is again nominated by members and is open to any artisan cheese, regardless of whether the milk used is raw, pasteurised or thermised.
Not only was the farm visit a time to look at developments within the world of cheese, it was also an opportunity to discuss what can be done in terms of outreach and engagement to the wider community. Delicious meals were provided by the Square Food Foundation, a Bristol based charity that works to reduce hunger, improve health and bring people together through food and cooking. Square Food's ethos was a theme that ran throughout the weekend with group discussions on the role of education in food for consumers and young people. Hosts Holden Farm feel strongly about this and are investing in their farm to be able to facilitate educational experiences. They're building wooden cabins on their farm to accommodate visitors and they've also refurbished their threshing barn to host forums and workshops.
Other talks were held on the idea of a unified food rating system to signpost great farming practice to consumers, and the importance of specialist retailers working with artisan producers. There were discussions around how vital it is that in a post-Brexit, Covid-19 landscape the cheese communities of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales stay connected. We even learned about how closed dairy herds adapt generationally to the land.
Even more food-for-thought came from the farm tour, led by Patrick Holden, who showed visitors round. Bwlchwernen Fawr has been certified organic since 1973 making it Wales' longest certified organic farm. Their aim is to farm in harmony with nature, minimising the use of outside inputs, including energy, feed and bedding, in line with the principles of the circular economy. This blog from Becky Holden gives an insight into what we learned about their relationship with their herd of Ayrshire cows.
After such a trying and difficult 18 months for everyone attending, the SCA farm visit was even more valuable than ever. It felt heartening to be reassured that we don’t exist in a silo but in a community that is stronger as a sum of its parts. To be able to reconnect with so many old friends, to meet new producers and to be able to look outwards at what’s happening in our world of food and farming was invigorating and we look forward to more work like this in the near future.