Biddy Fraser-Davies of Cwmglyn Farmhouse Cheese passed away on 13 July, aged 76. Her friend, cheesemonger Calum Hodgson, pays tribute.
I would call cheesemaker Biddy Fraser-Davies on my commutes home from Auckland CBD to Whangaparāoa. I’d been making these calls to Biddy every other day now for the last three years, discussing everything from Eketahuna’s new adult shop to planning our Great Eketahuna Cheese Festival in May.
“Good afternoon, Cwmglyn Farm and Middleton Model Railway, Biddy speaking.” She always answered the phone like that. I dared not interrupt her flow. I loved listening to her elocution, so beautifully expressive. And man, could she talk for Africa about cheese. I mean I thought I was bad at talking incessantly about cheese, but Biddy was next-level awesome and blessed with the gift of storytelling. Tenaciously stubborn and a self-described “late-developing geriatric peasant”, Biddy made me laugh and see the real and surreal stuff. It’s no secret that I adored her.
Cwmglyn, a cheese produced by Biddy in Eketahuna from 2002 to 2018, was known all around the world and praised for its superior flavour. It was New Zealand’s most famous and rarest cheese.
Good cheese is a simple, nutritious peasant food that in New Zealand, due to unaffordable regulatory measures ostensibly designed to ensure food safety, is enjoyed mostly by the wealthy. New Zealand Dairy regulations are geared to huge factories of the size and complexity of export-orientated companies, with very little provision made to accommodate tiny cheesemaking industries. Biddy had been trying for years to get these costs down to a reasonable level, so that craft cheeses could not only feed the family of the cheesemaker, but be produced in sufficient quantities to be enjoyed by many at cheesemonger shops and markets all over the country.
“There’s a principle involved. Life is ridiculous and silly, so that behoves you to make it more sensible.” – Biddy
Biddy and I shared hundreds of phone calls and literally thousands of emails – I used to joke with her they were longer than the Book of Genesis. This is one of the emails Biddy sent me:
I’ve always had a thing about cows. One of my most vivid childhood memories was when I was about 4 or 5 and staying with my paternal grandparents in Hailsham, Sussex. Grandpop left for work on his motorbike at about 5am and my grandmother was always busy so I was left much to my own devices. I decided to make friends with the cows grazing the meadow behind the house. My grandfather was a professional gardener and the acre or so of garden surrounding the 1930s bungalow was all that a country productive garden should be; at any time of the year a meal could be made from its bounty whatever the season. They had fruit trees, a greenhouse, a vast kitchen vegetable garden and, interestingly, a row of rabbit hutches along the boundary where my Nana Chickens, as I called her, (because she had chickens too, and, it has to be said, she was no intellectual) kept her rabbits, bred solely for the pot.
I was allowed to pick the windfall apples and I used these to encourage the cows to come and talk to me over the back fence. It started with one cow, but by the end of my holiday, I had a whole row of them waiting for their apples…
I was sent off to boarding school when I was nine. My father was in the RAF being moved about all over the place and my mother despaired of me getting any sort of education as I’d been to so many schools. As my parents were often at the other end of the country to the school, short half-term holidays were often spent with my friends’ families. So that’s how I learnt to milk a cow when I was 11. The Blys’ farm was just outside Tenterden in Kent and was over 300 years old and there was no electricity. Mr Bly had 12 cows and they were all milked by hand. The house rule was anyone staying at the farm had to help with the milking, and if you’d never milked a cow before, the only concession was you got a quiet one. You sat on a three-legged wooden milking stool with a white enamel pail between your legs, under the cow’s udder, with your head pressed into her flank and while she munched the hay held in the ancient hay mangers above her. You squeezed her teats and watched the creamy milk froth up in the bucket. It was quite magical, but sadly, after I left school, I didn’t milk any more cows until I was 60 and had my own!
Gwendolyn was my first cow and I’d raised her from a late-born four-day-old calf. She was much indulged and swamped me with milk and, as Fonterra do not pick up from one cow, I had to teach myself to make cheese to use up all the milk. And thus began my cheese adventure. And here I am, 15 years later, still making cheese!
I only make the one sort; a hard, raw, traditional farmhouse cheese made in a cheddar style. I like to think that if a dairy maid from 1640 suddenly materialised in my cheeseroom, I could go off and make a cup of tea as she would know exactly what to do, even though she’d probably be freaked out by the shiny stainless steel, hot water gushing from taps and, of course, the blasted paperwork covering all the regulations!
Small-production artisan cheesemakers like me work more or less in isolation, so for me, a cheese festival means getting to talk to lots of different people who know exactly what you are talking about, the issues, problems and sometimes the solutions…
– Biddy Fraser-Davies, Cwmglyn Farmhouse Raw Cheese, Eketahuna
Biddy was very far from isolated in her cheeseroom. At her memorial service in Eketahuna last week, it struck me how she connected with such a wide range of people via all available channels. She was the consummate keyboard warrior, firing off missives to MPs, sharing updates about her cows and the cheese, fielding enquiries from cheesemakers needing and offering support. It was so refreshing that finally someone wasn’t going to lie down and “let the bastards win”. I loved her for this tenacity, and somehow we clicked. I became Biddy’s remote PA, helping to get the cheese and her undiluted message out to a wider audience. Biddy was quick to say yes to adventure. Any challenges that would inevitably be encountered along the whey, Biddy would resolve. She was a woman who encouraged other women to strive for excellence, and proved that age is no barrier to reinventing oneself.
Eketahuna was HQ for all cheese-related happenings as Biddy staunchly refused to go any further than 76km from ‘her’ town. It wasn’t until this year’s Great Eketahuna Cheese Festival that I finally got to meet my food hero. Talk about feeling self-conscious! But Biddy made me feel at ease, told me off for being so late to visit, and showed me around her castle. My pilgrimage was complete, and the festival the next day was the icing on the cake.
This was a small cheese fest in a small part of provincial New Zealand that had made a big impact on the state of veritable raw farmhouse New Zealand cheese. Folks from all over made the same pilgrimage to Eketahuna to celebrate all of our combined cheese community efforts. The fact it was also Biddy’s 76th birthday was no coincidence; it was a delight for all to be able to sing our unsung hero a Happy Birthday on her home turf.
In her address to the Parliamentary Select Committee on food safety law reform, Biddy said: “As I head towards the end of my life, I’d like it to be said that I’ve left a legacy that makes it easier for the next generation of cheesemakers to survive the swamps of bureaucracy MPI compels us to wade through and thereby give everybody time to make better cheese.”
Biddy was our icon and battle axe for small-scale cheesemaking. She was not afraid to stand up to MPI and she exposed the nonsensical regulatory framework. Now there is a changing tide and cultural shift with regulators that thankfully Biddy lived to see.
Thanks to our Biddy, the revolution will not be pasteurised.
Calum Hodgson, aka the Curd Nerd, is a “New Zealand farmstead cheese evangelist” and the cheesemonger at Auckland food store Sabato.
The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.