Cheddar from Westcombe Dairy

A ‘five mile cheddar’ is a cheese you’ll still be tasting five miles drive from the dairy. It was Neal’s Yard in London who coined the phrase in the early 90’s and Westcombe Dairy in Somerset quickly picked up on it. ‘Randolph from Neal’s Yard came down to Somerset religiously every two months to taste our cheese,’ explains Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy, ‘But he never bought any. We kept concentrating on the quality and suddenly one day he decided to buy.’

Westcombe cheddar has since gone from strength to strength -interestingly a move back to basics helped create its award winning flavour. Traditional cheddar has been made at Westcombe since the 1890s but in the 1970s the dairy started to produce commercial style cheese, in line with changes in the market. ‘Cheese making became more commercial and the block style preferable to the round one,’ Tom Calver explains, ‘It is a totally different product from traditional hand made cheddar.’

In the early 1990s Tom’s father was forced to take a long, hard look at cheese making production. The Westcombe factory required dramatic refurbishment if it was to continue being competitive. Instead, the Calvers opted to step out of the competition altogether and venture into a niche market. The Westcombe factory was pulled down and a purpose built dairy, designed for the Somerset artisan cheddar maker took its place. Esteemed professional cheese maker Bob Bramley was head hunted from another cheddar business and a new era began at Westcombe Dairy.

With the help of Bob Bramley, Tom and his father have become devoted to traditional cheddar making. ‘Each cheese is a work of art,’ Tom enthuses, ‘The funny thing is there isn’t really a secret recipe. Making cheese is like making wine; everyday is a new vintage. We milk the cows everyday and everyday the milk is slightly different.’

Tom admitted academic defeat at the age of 17 and, inspired by Jamie Oliver, trained as a chef at Pru Leith’s in London. Experience cooking in some of London’s finest eateries no doubt gave him a taste for quality food. But it was an apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard that taught him the art of cheese tasting; ‘Afterwards I decided to come down to Somerset and opt for a great lifestyle – tasting cheddar.’

Tom tastes the cheese every three, six and nine months. A cheese iron (similar to an apple corer) is inserted into the side of the cheddar in order to get a picture of how the cheese is progressing throughout. Westcombe cheese is not labelled mild, mature or vintage. ‘We let the cheese decide for itself,’ says Tom, ‘which can be an absolute nightmare’. The cheese is stored at 10 C and 90% humidity, a cave atmosphere, according to Tom – exactly like the caves at Cheddar gorge, Somerset. The cheese matures within 12-18 months and during that time it can produce some dubious flavours; ‘Then it suddenly pulls itself around’ Tom explains.

Quality ingredients are the key to any successful food product. ‘If you want the best tomato sauce you use the best tomatoes,’ says Tom, putting his chef’s hat on, ‘It is the same with milk. If you want quality milk you must treat and feed the cows in the right way.’ According to Tom everything about the environment has an effect on the cheese’s flavour – how the cows are feeling – how the cheese maker is feeling.

Consequently, the Calvers cows are spoilt rotten. Non GM muesli is fed to them throughout the summer months when they are at grass in order to keep annual feed patterns regular. ‘Cheese making is really quite inconsistent in summer because the cows are out so you have no control over the grass or the weather. The muesli option is costly, we do it just for the cheese’ says Tom.

Having launched an organic Jersey milk line for a London businesswoman, the Calvers decided to adopt organic principles with their own herd. Although Westcombe Dairy is not officially certified organic, scrupulous care is taken to produce milk in an organic, environmentally friendly way. Natural fertilizer is produced by increasing the clover levels in the grass; ‘It pulls nitrogen from the air and acts as a natural fertilizer,’ Tom explains. The Calvers are also eager participants of national environmental schemes such as hedge laying.

So what exactly should one look for in a ‘Five Mile Cheddar?’ ‘I’m looking for shapes. The cheese should touch the pallet in a cone shape. It should have a roundness that touches every taste bud in your mouth,’ says Tom, ‘But the main thing is length – the taste should go off in a really smooth cone.’ According to Tom, bad cheddars are marked by a harsh sweetness or a sulphurous ‘egginess’. The fact that Westcombe cheddar is unpastuerised accounts for its depth. ‘Block cheese is safe cheese with the flavour all on one level but unpasteurised cheese has peaks and troughs’ Tom maintains.

And what should accompany such a gastronomic masterpiece? Tom recommends a glass of Somerset cider and a decent bit of granary bread. ‘Keep it simple as you don’t want to overpower it too much. Pomona, a beautiful cider apple liqueur is also great,’ he suggests.

Westcombe cheddar can be found at Neal’s Yard in London and at delicatessens across the country; ‘If you find one that doesn’t stock it, have words with them!’ Tom jokes. Farmer’s market stalls in Bath and Sloane Square, London on Saturdays sell Westcombe cheddar and it is included in the Westcountry Farmhouse Cheese Board at Waitrose.