Cheese

This Cheesemaker Is Aging Cheddar Down a 90-Metre Coal Mine

As Wales’ steelworks close, entrepreneurs are finding new uses for old industrial structures—including Susan Fiander-Woodhouse, who keeps 20-kilogram metal cases of cheese at the bottom of a Blaenafon mineshaft.

by Johanna Derry
23 September 2016, 4:00pm

All photos by the author.

The Valleys of South Wales are known for tight communities, male voice choirs, and beautiful landscapes. Once an industrial heartland built on the steel and coal found in rich seams under the mountains, the area is now largely post-industrial. In fact, on the day I visit Blaenafon, news breaks of the potential closure of another Port Talbot steel plant.

But you can't keep the Welsh down. So as the pits and steelworks close, leaving its people to wonder what they'll do for work, entrepreneurs are finding new uses for old industrial structures. In Blaenafon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and home to one of the oldest coal mines in Wales, this means making cheese.

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Steelworks at Blaenafon, an industrial town in South Wales. All photos by the author.

As the last major steelworks in Wales comes under threat, the woman I'm here to visit took advantage of a closed local mine to give character to her cheddar.

She is Susan Fiander-Woodhouse. Her entire operation runs from a shop on the main street of the town, a five-minute drive from what is now the Big Pit National Coal Museum, a large decommissioned mine that stands proud on a hillside looking over Blaenafon.

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For the last ten years, at the bottom of a mineshaft in this pit, Fiander-Woodhouse has been keeping 20 kilogram-metal cases of cheese. But it was an idea she had years earlier.

"I've worked in bras, drugs, bombs, sterile services, and now cheese," she declares. "I had a job as a cheese packer at the end of the line at a factory and one day my boss came and told me his development chef had left. Did I fancy it? I knew nothing about cheese then but they trained me and I ended up working with them for ten and a half years."

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The Big Pit in Blaenafon.

While Fiander-Woodhouse was developing recipes, she came up with the idea of using the mine to mature cheese.

"I told my boss but he thought it was stupid, so I kept the idea in my back pocket," she remembers. "When I left, and set up on my own, I met the mine manager and he said it would be no problem."

The Blaenafon Cheddar Company is a family operation, based on close local ties (during my visit, various people pop in for a chat and a cup of tea) and all the cheeses have connections with charities or food businesses nearby.

"We started with four flavours," says Fiander-Woodhouse, "Our Pwll Mawr, which means 'big pit,' was one of them, and it's gone from there."

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Blaenafon Cheddar Company in South Wales.

Now she makes Blaenafon Cheddar with Welsh whisky from Penderyn (wrapped in blue wax to represent the local football team, the Blaenafon Blues), Pwll Ddu flavoured with mustard, leeks, and local ale, and even a cheese based on bara brith, a traditional Welsh bread.

"We didn't want a factory so everything has to fit and flow here," she explains, waving her arm around a room that is no more than six metres square. At the front is the shop, displaying fifteen different kinds of cheeses and local ales. At the back are her son Terence and son-in-law Adam, busy cutting cheeses into shape and waxing them.

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The cheese is stored in a mineshaft in 20-kilogram metal cases.

There's very little room for storage. But, as I soon discover after donning helmet, hi-vis jacket, and a head torch to descend 90 metres underground at the Big Pit mine, there's space aplenty underground to keep cheddar. Groups of schoolkids traipse past the cheese at the same time as they nosey at coal trolleys, learning about the industry that used to be here, none the wiser that this dark space is now home to an entirely new enterprise.

"The temperature is a constant 10.9 degrees Celsius and it doesn't fluctuate," Fiander-Woodhouse explains. "It's dark and dank, so it's a good atmosphere for producing cheese. Health and safety signed it off, and so it was perfect."

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Blaenafon Cheddar, matured in the town's Big Pit mine.

Her plan to store cheese in the pit wasn't just as a convenient space saver for her. It also produces a fantastic cheddar.

"Bread and cheese and jam were staples for miners—it was known as miner's wedding cake," she says. "The miners used to notice a change in their lunches. They took it down in metal carry cases, and those who took two different cases for shifts could taste a difference in the one they ate later."

Fiander-Woodhouse wasn't just following her instincts when she put her cheese in the local mine. In the 18th and 19th centuries, cheese was often matured underground to develop the flavour. Her hunch paid off.

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"When it goes down there, it's left to do its own thing," she says. "The cheese is 18 months old already when we move it to the pit and we leave it there only for about a fortnight. And it does change! It becomes creamier with a more mature flavour, and the texture is really good."

Within two years of her starting her cheese making enterprise, Pwll Mawr cheddar scooped a Bronze at the British Cheese Awards, the first of many prizes.

But Fiander-Woodhouse's ambition isn't just for herself. Her goal in making cheese is to put Blaenafon on the map for something other than coal. She also organises guided cycle rides around the World Heritage Site and promotes local producers in her shop.

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Blaenafon cheesemaker Susan Fiander-Woodhouse.

"Wales has some really outstanding producers in a small area," Fiander-Woodhouse says. "We have it all in one place from the Severn Bridge to the Wye Valley—restaurants, vineyards, beer, beef, lamb, cheese of course. Because we have so much, it's easy to say that Welsh food tastes like Wales. It has a flavour of its own."

All of which might be cold comfort to the steelworkers of Port Talbot but with Fiander-Woodhouse on the case, South Wales' industrial past will live on at least in the flavour of its cheese.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2016.