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.
||Holstein Friesian, Ayreshire
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.