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Blessed are the cheesemakers: Merry Wyfe

Clare Finney tells the story behind a semi hard cider-washed cheese from Bath Soft Cheese Co


It may be a small, unassuming rural village in Somerset, but Kelston – and the century-old dairy farm it is home to – has a couple of claims to fame. The first is as the home and burial place of Sir John Harington, godson of Queen Elizabeth I and inventor of the first flush toilet; the second is as the origin of a multiple award-winning range of cheeses.

Bath Soft Cheese is the name – both of the company and the eponymous cheese which was so renowned in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was recommended to Admiral Lord Nelson. The Padfield family have been making this and other cheeses here for four generations, so it comes as no surprise that they should want to reflect some of the area’s rich history in the cheeses.

One of the more recent additions to their stable is Merry Wyfe: a cider-washed version of their gouda-like, semi-hard cheese, Wyfe of Bath. Those familiar with Chaucer will recognise its name – so-called because the Padfields, the family behind the cheese, are a literary lot. “And, like the tale, when you cut into a Wyfe of Bath you will get a taste old England,” says Hugh Padfield. “It’s made in the same way farmers would have made simple cheeses with milk that wasn’t sold for drinking: by putting curds in a basket.”

“We’ve quite the team of cheesemakers here,” he continues, “and all of us like to experiment.” As a result, the number of test cheeses lurking around the ripening rooms had increased exponentially over the years. “One day I said to the staff, we need to be more focused – we need to decide on a new cheese and do it properly.”

After a heated tasting session, the team alighted upon the alluring pungency of a washed-rind cheese. “When you wash the rind, you aren’t washing off what is there. It’s about adding moisture and nutrients to the rind,” says Hugh patiently. It’s why washed-rind cheeses are so richly imbued with flavour: the washing encourages the growth of yeast and bacteria, lending the cheese its pungent smell and distinctive colour and texture.

Merry Wyfe was a while in the making: “We knew we wanted a washed-rind cheese, but wanted to experiment with the liquid,” he continues. “We are all about local provenance, so ideally we wanted to use something produced in the area.” In the end, the answer was on their doorstep: cider brewed by Hugh’s father, from the apples of the three ancient orchards on their farm. “Back in the day the apples would have been used to brew cider for local pubs, but they were just dropping to the floor and being eaten by the cows until dad started fermenting cider two or three years ago.” They had a few litres to work with “and we found it produced this beautiful colour and rich smell when combined with Wyfe of Bath.”

They wash the cheeses every other day for four weeks in the ripening room, transforming them from creamy white to sunset orange. “It’s very labour-intensive, but it tastes great,” Hugh continues. Merry Wyfe has even won a couple of awards, including Best Organic Cheese at the recent British Cheese Awards – “but what we’re most proud of is its consistency. Awards come and go, but it is something to build up regular customers for a consistently good cheese.”

The name also took some developing. “It was one of the farm workers that suggested Merry Wyfe – ‘the Wyfe of Bath has been soaked in cider, hasn’t she, so she’s tipsy,’ he pointed out.” At the same time, Hugh’s friend told him about Queen Elizabeth I’s visit to Kelston in the 16th century. “I thought we might be able to have an Elizabethan reference in the name of the cheese.”

Given the context, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor stuck out immediately. “I will rather trust a Fleming with my butter, Parson Hugh the Welshman with my cheese, an Irishman with my aqua vitae bottle, or a thief to walk my ambling gelding, than my wife with herself,” quotes Hugh, laughing. “It all tied together: the cider, Kelston village, our love of literature” – and, of course, their cheese.