Nearly four decades ago, Thelma Adams sat half naked in a bathtub of cold milk wearing a Cleopatra-style wig and was towed through the streets of a Welsh town. At the time the stunt – designed to to highlight an unfolding crisis in the farming industry – brought Carmarthen town to a standstill but did little to stop the introduction of controversial European milk quotas in April 1984.
Thelma, then 46, was trying to highlight how it was cheaper to bathe in milk than water, as the price of milk plummeted. Now aged 84, Thelma is a diminutive woman still with a glint in her eye that hints at someone who’s lived an intriguing life. Following the decimation of the dairy industry, Thelma and her husband Gwynfor went on to create Caws Cenarth, the artisan cheese company which sells to Waitrose and which this year received a Royal Warrant from HRH Prince Charles.
The go get them attitude seems to run in the family. Fast forward to the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, and Thelma’s son, Carwyn Adams, now managing director of Caws Cenarth, was facing the loss of his family business as he had nowhere to sell thousands of cheese truckles produced for the imminent Easter period.
In a moment of desperation, he turned to YouTube and poured out his heart into the abyss of the internet. He wasn’t expecting much – maybe friends and family to simply “rally round and support us once again”. Describing his plea as a “bit of a social experiment” he offered a box of three different types of cheese with the option of paying the full price and getting a 50% discount that Christmas, or getting 50% off the price then, or for those who couldn’t afford much at the time getting a box for just the price of postage and packing.
“You might be thinking ‘free cheese?’ but we are probably going to have to throw it away later anyway,” said Carwyn to the camera.
“We are hoping that those who can afford to pay will, others to pay what they can and those who really cannot afford it in these dire times, we will give it away free. There is a certain percentage we can give away for free and really it’s down to you to make that decision and that call.”
His video clocked up more than 30,000 views and much like his mother bought Carmarthen to a halt, so too did Carwyn’s stunt bring the company website to a standstill. Following the post, 3,000 new customers came forward to help, the phone didn’t stop ringing, the orders flooded in and the business sold out of cheese in just 48 hours.
The response was overwhelming for the 49-year-old and even in December 2022 he is still grateful for all that support. Being a typical Welsh farmer, he “never normally asks for help” he admitted.
With a mother like Thelma, it’s no wonder Carwyn has big dreams for Caws Cenarth, the oldest established producer of Welsh Farmhouse Caerffili which was granted European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 2018. The artisan cheesemaker is also behind the famous creamy blue Perl Las and brie-like Perl Wen which grace nearly every self-respecting cheeseboard in all the best restaurants. We meet on a cold day in December, ethereal mist drifting in the Carmarthenshire valleys around Glyneithinog – Caws Cenarth HQ – sat overlooking the river Cych. We’re in deepest west Wales where each valley plunges steeply down through sturdy beech and oak trees, their branches still clinging on to the last of their golden leaves, to sparkling rivers and streams heading to Cardigan Bay.
It’s warm inside Thelma’s little flat, where she’s just moved to after the sale of the farmhouse she used to live with her husband Gwynfor. He died a year ago and it made sense for her to be back at Glyneithinog she said as she made a cup of tea and put homemade welshcakes onto a china plate. “They might not be very good,” she said apologetically. “They’ve been in the freezer.”
The farm has changed immeasurably since she and Gwynfor lived their with their two young children – Carwyn and Caroline – and a herd of dairy cows. These days the old stone barns are converted into a slick cheese production line and cheese shop. The milking parlour is long gone – replaced with a series of temperature – controlled storage rooms stacked floor to ceiling with truckles of cheeses at various stages of ripening. The smell is potent – sweet and yeasty and acrid. Thelma’s flat overlooks the farmyard and across to the valley beyond and there’s a holiday cottage too.
Carwyn can remember buckets hanging up all over the original farmhouse when he was a boy, full of curds and with holes drilled in the bottom to drain the whey.
“There was cheese dripping everywhere,” he said looking across to his mother. “There were things hanging everywhere and you kept it in the bath.” Thelma is quick to reply: “Well I didn’t want to waste things.” She is of the generation brought up to use and reuse everything. Selling her cheese seemed like the next logical step.
Thelma sounds like a force of nature and well ahead of her time. Cheesemaking had always been in the family – in fact Carwyn’s great, great, grandmothers Lizzie Wyn and Leisa Jones made cheese for the family and to sell at the local market all the way back in 1903. “My mother made cheese so it was in my blood,” Thelma added.
It was simple cottage cheese – “nothing fancy” – Thelma said. But after she attended a cheesemaking course, run by the Ministry of Food, she started making it on a larger scale albeit from the family garage. Her skills and knowledge evolved but it was her marketing prowess that really stood her apart. “My marketing is better, but your cheese making is better,” she conceded, addressing her son. The motivation was simply to make more money from their milk.
“I don’t want it to define me but it has defined me,” Thelma said about her Cleopatra stunt with the smallest hint of pride. You get the sense she was simply doing what she felt she had to do. She was always going to be different she added, because her own father was an eccentric character: ” He ran the pub in a local village “out in the sticks”, Thelma said and kept monkeys and parrots. He was good with electrics and was one of the first in the area to get a TV and hook it up to a set of batteries so he could show programmes when no one else had electric.
There were lock ins, Thelma said with a glint in her eye. And when her father took off to Birmingham to show his corgis he chartered a plane to get there, taking off from the field outside the pub which caused all manner of local gossip. The Adams family it seems aren’t ones for following the rules. Thelma is adamant she alerted the police of her campaign back in 1984 but even so, they were “livid” when she and a convoy of 80 tractors caused a huge jam in Carmarthen.
Carwyn, stood in the doorway of his mother’s flat, laughed she’d probably get arrested for it these days. Thelma bats the suggestion away but adds it would probably be for indecent exposure more than travel disruption.
Many years later, when she met then Prince Charles she showed him a picture of herself in the bathtub and he replied: “Thelma, you have made my day.” The Prince and Thelma go all the way back to 1988 she added, almost as if they’re old friends. She recalled the first time they met, at the Royal Welsh Show. Thelma and her sister Betty had a stand in the food hall and they knew Charles was having a brief tour of some of the producers. So as soon as he arrived, Betty jumped right in front of him and said: “Come and see my stand.” Thelma laughs as she adds: “He came like a wee dog and broke all protocol.”
Charles has a “terrific sense of humour”, Thelma added. Meeting again in Aberystwyth Guild Hall, he turned to her and said: “Thelma, haven’t you retired yet?” Receiving the Royal Warrant – and all that it stands for – in 2022 is clearly a proud moment for her.
Thelma and Gwynfor started making their Caws Cenarth cheese in the late eighties and nineties when “there was not a lot of margin”. They had “tremendous help from the media”, Thelma said and as a Welsh-speaking family they fronted a lot of the Welsh programmes. As the cheese business grew, they had to decide whether to carry on milking the cows alongside. It was just too hard, said Carwyn who by this point had returned to the family farm as a young man with his wife who he met while working in Russia.
Thelma and Gwynfor wanted to retire – Gwynfor would have been 88 this year Thelma said – and Carwyn wanted to make it a bigger business. He added: “There’s no way you could farm and make cheese.” They now work with milk co-operatives to ensure they have a consistent supply that can match the peaks and troughs of seasonal demand. Being December, they are in full swing making thousands of cheeses destined for platters up and down the country during the festive period.
Carwyn explained their aim is to make as many cheeses for the cheeseboard as they can. The hospitality sector is a big part of their business too – which is why they suffered so much during the lockdown. Their success now is built on the fact they “managed to ride the crest of development of food in Wales,” Thelma said.
Their “cash cow” is Perl Las, said Carwyn, acknowledging the cheesy pun. Their Golden Cenarth is popular too – a washed-rind cheese with a powerful flavour purposefully given a non-Welsh name to widen its appeal outside of Wales. The taste for cheese has changed through the generations said Thelma. In her day, the Welsh palate wasn’t ready for the softer blue cheeses. But now, in 2022, they sell their soft whites to Qatar Airlines. Perl Wen was even on Concorde in its heyday, Thelma said proudly.
They make half sizes of some cheese to send to Japan, where people like much smaller samples. If their awards are anything to go by, people can’t get enough of the stuff. As they celebrated their 35th year in business in 2022, Caws Cenarth won the Perpetual Cup for winning most prizes at the Royal Welsh Show. And their Caerffili Cheese – Thelma’s Original – was awarded Gold at the World Cheese Awards and also judged Best Welsh Cheese.
Carwyn has always been “intrigued by things” and understanding how they work. After a degree in engineering at rural college Harper Adams, he worked in Russia working on tractors and combine harvesters as a contractor, with stints in Uzbekistan and Ukraine too. It’s where he met his wife, Susanna, and his children grew up speaking a confusing mix of Russian, Welsh and English he laughed. They came back to Wales determined “to make a business lifestyle here in west Wales”.
The idea behind Perl Wen came from Carwyn and Susanna and that first year it won best new cheese. It came from humble beginnings, Carwyn recalled. They made a tiny batch of just 10 cheeses, all of which went in a single order to Yorkshire.
Perl Las came off the back of that success two years later and then in 2010 they produced their Golden Cenarth. Thelma prompts Carwyn with all the dates – she’s a stickler for detail. You get the sense not much escapes her attention.
“All of a sudden there’s this dairy in west Wales producing blue cheese and washed rind cheese,” said Carwyn. It wasn’t long before Waitrose and M&S came knocking. “It gave us extra kudos, being in the higher end super markets,” he added.
Even so, the business is heavily reliant on tourism and hospitality – the two sectors hit the hardest by Covid. “When Covid came we were very exposed,” Carwyn said. “I’ve always looked at mum’s marketing skills in the bathtub and that was her golden moment if you like. Mine was the YouTube video.”
Caws Cenarth had ramped up production for the Easter period and had thousands of cheeses sat on shelves with no market. The thought of wasting them was devastating and Carwyn described the “dire time” directly to his camera phone which he uploaded to the internet.
“I was hoping for maybe 50 orders, just for some interest,” he said. The video – which he “rattled out” on a Sunday after the fifth attempt – is “cringeworthy” but it went viral within hours. As it racked up the views, he’d received 50 orders by Monday morning. By Monday afternoon, they were taking six orders every minute and by Tuesday they’d sold out.
“It was phenomenal,” Carwyn said, still in some disbelief even now. “We literally sold everything, we had 3,000 orders in 48 hours. After the euphoria that we had managed to sell it all came the realisation we had to package it and deliver it.”
Carwyn added he was simply lucky with timing, in that people were sat around with not much else to watch or buy, but I suggest perhaps he was ahead of the curve just like his mother. Thelma shakes her head modestly and said: “If you don’t do it, nobody else will.” Carwyn agreed: “Timing is everything,” he said. “You get one chance at something like that. It was my defining moment I suppose.”
The support and generosity of his customers helped Caws Cenarth “get on the path again”. Carwyn added: “They were little angels of Caws Cenarth that helped us grow.”
They sell around 250 tons of cheese each year, employing 18 people outside the family. Thelma, Carwyn and Susanna are directors in the company. Meanwhile, Caroline – who much like her mother didn’t follow the standard path – has launched her ‘Hedyn Aur’ brand of artisan, hand-made crackers. Thelma proudly points out Caroline – a former nurse at Glangwili Hospital – has been a volunteer with Medecins Sans Frontieres and travelled to countries such as El Salvador, Colombia, Pakistan, Nigeria.
Seeing her children develop and grow what she and Gwynfor started brings her a lot of pride. But it took a while to hand it over: “I made it [cheese] all personally,” she said. “It was my baby and I didn’t trust it to anybody apart from Carwyn.” But she can see how these days the company benefits the local community and brings valuable employment.
Carwyn isn’t one to rest on his laurels however although he is bashful about taking much credit. Their staff are what make the company and he takes care to point out everyone by name when he gives me a tour of the production line later. It’s still a family business: “The family has extended and includes our staff,” he said. “They have given so many years to this business.”
“With the right vision and funding, we could turn Caws Cenarth into a powerhouse for soft cheese in the UK,” he added.
It’s a long way from the early days when Thelma started out. Even Gwynfor turned to her and asked: “Who would buy cheese for Christmas?”
But cheese is very much part of the Christmas celebrations now – maybe even more so than turkey laughed Carwyn. “There’s no better way to start a conversation than about cheese”, he continued. “It’s the catalyst for entertainment. It’s the enthusiasm for the cheese that keeps me going. How could you not get up in the morning when people say they want cheese? It’s the enthusiasm from the customers, as simple as that.”
Source : Wales Online 10th Dec 2022 by Laura Clements