“You’re staying at a wine estate… where?” Not quite the the wildly envious reaction I usually hear from my friends when I announce that I am going on a press trip… but then it’s not every day that I tell them that I am off to visit a wine farm in South West Wales. Ask anybody to list some of Europe’s cheese and wine producing regions and I am willing to bet that France, Italy and Spain will feature. Wales, not so much. But while global climate change is causing havoc with the rainfall and seasons in traditional wine producing regions, increasingly it is becoming possible to grow grapes and produce quality wine regions that were formerly simply too cold – including South West Wales.
After our overnight stay at Parc le Breos and our visit to the Gower Heritage Centre, we had made our way across to Carmarthenshire and arrived on a misty evening at Jabajak Vineyard, restaurant and rooms near Whitland. We were greeted by the exceptionally relaxed and funny owner, Amanda Stuart-Robson who showed us around the sympathetically restored property that she and her former husband bought in 1998 as a run-down smallholding. It originally held agricultural status and was called Banc-y-Llain but fondly nicknamed the Whitehouse. The current name Jabajak was concocted by the Stuart-Robson family and is made up of the initial letters of Amanda, her former husband, her three kids and her grandmother’s names – a real family affair. After working in Morocco, the family returned to Wales in 2004 to run Jabajak full-time.
The renovation was done in such a way as to preserve the integrity of the original building and, wherever possible, to retain a historical link to the past through using local methods and materials. This was evident when Amanda took us on a tour of the eight guest rooms, each character-filled and unique, especially the Grainstore, a gloriously private space located in the eaves of the restaurant with ample space, a king-size bed, lounge area and a huge bathroom featuring both a slipper bath and a separate power shower en-suite experience. My room, the Garden Suite, had a king-size bed, comfortable lounge area direct access to the vineyard – as well as a telescope for late-night stargazing to take advantage of the dark skies.
After freshening up we joined Amanda in the cosy private bar adjacent to the restaurant to relax on the comfortable leather sofas, enjoy a pre-dinner drink and chat about winemaking at Jabajak. The property is fortunate in that it comprises sunny south-facing slopes and the Stuart-Robsons planted the first vineyard in 2007. The varieties wee carefully selected to thrive in a cooler climate and the planting comprised nearly 2000 vines of Seyval, Phoenix, Rondo, Rheichenstiener, Huxelreber and Pinot Noir. Despite the unplanned-for frosts, vine-eating rabbits and jumping chickens with a taste for baby grapes (!), the first long-anticipated successful harvest took place in 2014 when approximately 2.5 tons tons of grapes were hand-picked and sent off to be pressed and vinified. The estate currently produces two wines. The White House White is a blend of Phoenix (89%) and Seyval (11%) grapes, cold fermented in stainless steel tanks before being blended into a delicate and well-balanced wine that won a silver award in the Welsh Vineyard Association Wine Awards in 2015. The Welsh Blush Sparkling 2014 is a delightful sparkling rosé produced from Seyval and Phoenix grapes blended with a touch of Rondo for colour and delicate summer berry flavours – a perfect summer party drink. I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised by my first introduction to Welsh wine and now I am keen to explore some of the other Welsh wineries!
From the bar we moved through to the Bistro, the estate restaurant on the ground floor situated amongst the wine racks and overlooking a pretty courtyard where we had dinner. We both started with decadent pan-seared fresh scallops in a creamy prawn sauce topped with Parmesan (£8.50), before I moved on to Welsh lamb rump slow roasted in rock salt wit a citrus-based redcurrant and port sauce (£24.50) for my main. May had Celtic pride fillet steak served with mushrooms and tomatoes (£24.50). Both dishes were served with baby carrots; shredded sprouts with bacon; and an outstanding creamy potato bake. The meat was of outstanding quality in both dishes. For dessert we had a selection of sorbets and ice-creams. The meal was one of the standout meals of the trip, not only because of the relaxed and intimate atmosphere of the bistro, but also the friendly service and excellent quality of the food. Breakfast the next morning was also served buffet style in the bistro with a great selection of local yoghurts, cereals and eggs cooked to order. I was really sorry to leave after only one night as the combination of beautiful accommodation; excellent food and wine; and Amanda’s outstanding hospitality are hard to resist.
From Welsh wine, we moved on to Welsh cheese as we drove to on the farm Glyneithinog in the lovely and lush valley of the river Cych to visit Caws Cenarth, a family cheese business started by Gwynfor and Thelma Adams in 1987 in response to milk quotas. Milk quotas were introduced by the EU in 1984 to limit rising milk production by placing a cap on the amount of milk that a farmer could sell every year without paying a levy. Farms that had a surplus of milk either had to pay a levy to sell the surplus or find a creative way of using it up – likie cheesemaking! Gwynfor and Thelma drew on a six generation tradition of cheesemaking and Thelma soon became a leading light in the renaissance of Welsh artisan cheesemaking. When the milk quotas were proposed she famously organised a demonstration in Carmarthen where 11 scantily-clad women dressed as Cleopatra bathed in milk under the banner “It’s cheaper to bathe in milk than in water” as a protest through the town, followed by a convoy of 80 vehicles. Thelma also posed for a poster dressed is Cleopatra bathing in milk and a copy of the poster still hangs on the wall at the Caws Cenarth visitor centre. When Charles, Prince of Wales visited the farm in 2014 he noticed the famous milk bathing poster and reportedly said: “Thelma – you have made my day!”
Caws Cenarth is the oldest established producer of Welsh Farmhouse Caerffili, which has won Champion Cheese at the Royal Welsh Show for 7 years in a row. As well as the plain Caerffili, they also produces other varieties including Garlic and Herb Caerffili; and Smoked Caerffili. More recently, Carwyn has developed a number of new cheeses, including the Brie-like Perl Wen; a creamy blue called Perl Las; and Golden Cenarth, a washed-rind cheese with a pungent flavour. Gwynfor and Thelma take a back seat these days, leaving son Carwyn to run the cheese business, indulging his passion for creating new Welsh cheeses. It was Carwyn who met us at the door of the tasting room and took us on a fascinating tour of the small factory. First we saw where the rennet and cultures are added to the cheese and the tanks where the curds and whey are stirred, and then the moulds that are used to shape the curds into rounds of cheese before ripening. We then moved on to a series of chilled rooms (with varying degrees of pungency!) where the various cheese are ripened on metal racks. Carwyn explained to us that cheese rinds are formed during the ripening process and that the rind provides protection against loss of moisture, harmful bacteria and damage due to handling. For washed rind cheeses (e.g. Epoisses or the farm’s own Golden Cenarth), the formed cheeses are periodically immersed in brine (or other liquids e.g. brandy) during ripening, resulting the growth of a specific orange-colored bacterium which lends a complex, nutty flavour to the cheese. For a bloomy rind (the soft and velvety rind usually found on cheeses like Brie) the surface of the formed cheese is sprayed with penicillium candidum, which is a specific mold culture that forms the velvety edible crust and spreads a creamy texture and mild flavour throughout the cheese. My favourites were definitely the ripening bloomy cheeses with their little velvety white jackets – although it was also fascinating to see the burgeoning collection of mold on the rinds of the other cheeses too!
Our tour finished in the sales and tasting room where Carwyn took us through the Caws Cenarth range. I loved the classic Thelma Caerffili but was also intrigued by Carwyn’s smoked Caerffili. There is a delightful range of full-flavoured wax-covered hard cheeses, some flavoured with brandy & apricots or chilli & tomato. Soft cheese lovers will adore the creamy and moreish Perl Las (Brie-like creation) and the blue Perl Wen is creamy and rich without being overly pungent. And if you like your cheese a little smelly, you will love the Golden Cenarth – like a Welsh take on Epoisses. And for the true cheese lover, they also produce wedding “cheesecakes” – tiers of cheeses instead of cake, decorated with flowers :). Caws Cenarth should definitely be on the itinerary of any cheese lover visiting Wales – both for the quality cheese and for the passion of the people involved in making the cheese.
You may also be interested in reading my previous South West Wales post, all about Dylan Thomas’s house in Swansea, Parc le Breos and the Gower Heritage Centre. Stay tuned for my next post on Coast restaurant in Saundersfoot.
USEFUL VISITOR INFO
For more information on holidays in Carmarthenshire go to www.discovercarmarthenshire.com.
DISCLOSURE: I visited Carmarthenshire as a guest of South West Wales Tourism Partnership but received no further remuneration to write this post. I was not expected to write a positive review – all views are my own and I retain full editorial control.
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