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Westcombe Dairy

Somerset is not cheesemaking country by accident. The county grows one crop as well as any part of the world. The low hills, warm microclimates, generous rainfall, gentle mists and rich soils conspire to provide the one ingredient perfect for plentiful cheese-grade milk: rich grass. When that grass is allowed to grow in a way that benefits cheese diversity, with minimal chemical intervention and an understanding that quality is made in the field and not the dairy, then the conditions for creating cheese magic are set. It’s a magic that’s happening once again at Westcombe.

Herd size 360 Animal Cow
Breed Holstein Friesian, Ayreshire Farm made
Traditional method

Cheesemaking began at Westcombe in 1879 under Edith Cannon. It was then an unremarkable feat, as hundreds of farmers’ wives would have generated a winter store for their mixed farm. In the early 1900s the Bicknell family expanded upon this, and by the time second-generation Phyllis Bicknell was in charge, cheddar was being produced from the milk of three herds in the Westcombe district.

Traditional cheesemaking at the farm had weathered the war years, but by the time Richard Calver joined in the 1960s the farm had moved with the times to block cheddar. Richard gradually took on the farming and joined Phyllis in partnership, later taking over cheesemaking duties. By the early 1990s competition in the commodity cheddar market forced a re-think. Westcombe went back to its roots in joining the tiny number of Somerset cheesemakers still producing traditionally cheddared, unpasteurised, cloth-bound cheddar. It was a decision that Richard’s son, Tom Calver, acknowledges saved the farm.

A chef by trade, Tom took over in 2008, with a desire to build upon what his father had started. His experiences with world cheeses and an apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy had shown him the scope of what might be possible for cheddar. Innovations in the fields, dairy and maturation room followed. Higher methods of animal welfare, a move towards natural fertilisers, gentler handling of the milk, and a new underground maturation cave have all contributed to the quality of the cheeses.

The moulds on long-aged, hard, naturally-rinded cheeses are attractive to cheese mites. The traditional method of dealing with them is a regular brush down, a laborious manual process. Tom looked to the Jurassic cellars of Comté for inspiration, where complementary mechanisation has been embraced, installing a robotic brusher and turner, nicknamed Tina.

Westcombe is one of only four companies to be recognised as producers of Artisan Somerset Cheddar by the slow food movement, in that the cheese is made from unpasteurised milk, using traditional pint starters and animal rennet, hand cheddared (the process of block-cutting curd whilst it drains) and made into 22kg or larger cloth-bound cheeses. The dairy also produces an unpasteurised and naturally-rinded Caerphilly. Duckett’s Caerphilly (named in honour of Chris Duckett, who brought the family recipe to Westcombe in the 1990s) is in the premier tier for the style, matured in its own ageing room, complete with a natural spring to assist temperature and humidity regulation.

Westcombe Dairy is an important mirror to the past as well as a glimpse into the future of cheddar, the two intrinsically similar despite the shape and shine of methods new.

This is one of 87 cheesemakers included in Gimblett’s Guide to the Best of British Cheese, due to be published June 2020.

Cheddar

The nose gives a rich and characterful scents of seed, vanilla and creamed cashew, which continues through the rich cream-crunch palate with flavours of summer hay, dried orchard fruit, becoming stone-mineral like towards the rind. Exceptional.

Sweet whites, rich reds, vintage port, malty ale, cider, whisky.

Via the website or wholesalers and cheesemongers countrywide. See web for details.

Weight 25kg
Shape Drum
Age at release 12 months
Small breed
Rennet Animal
Animal Cow
Style Hard

Duckett's Caerphilly

Three cheeses in one, with an even, chalky core-centre giving gentle notes of lime and grass, with the under-rind breakdown adding notes of clotted cream, before the gernerous rind provides layers of dried field mushroom flavours. Outstanding.

Aromatic off dry whites, light chilled reds, cider and hoppy ales.

Via the website or wholesalers and cheesemongers countrywide. See web for details.

Weight 4kg
Shape Small Drum
Age at release 6 months
Small breed
Rennet Animal
Animal Cow
Style Semi-hard

Lamyatt

The rich fine-paste core gives classic high-tone sweet Alpine notes of wildflower and caramel with a hint of lemon sherbet, with flavours becoming meatier, dry bacon-like, towards the rind.

Rich whites, semi sweet whites, chilled reds, off dry cider, malty ale.

Via the website or wholesalers and cheesemongers countrywide. See web for details.

Weight 30kg
Shape Large Wheel
Small breed
Rennet Animal
Animal Cow
Style Hard