We've had some great press recently as word has spread about our new cheese-turning robot and underground cheese cellar. Following a visit from Ruth Sanderson of Radio 4's On Your Farm, we've had journalists from the Times, Telegraph, Express and the Daily Mail flocking to the dairy to see 'Tina' in action turning our cheddars. If you missed the coverage, you can catch up here…
Well, we finally did it. Less that two years since it began, we’ve finished our new underground cheese cellar! What was once just an idea – and then not much more than a dream – is finally a reality. Our vast vaulted cellar is built and buried back into the cool, insulating clay of the hill, the shelves are up and loaded with cheese, and the robot (affectionately named ‘Tina the Turner’) is whirring up and down the aisles, lifting, turning and brushing the cheese wheels as they undergo their long, slow maturation into beautiful Westcombe cheddar.
And we couldn’t be happier. Sure, it wasn’t the easiest of journeys getting here, but all in all it came together really well. The new cooling system, which is using water from a spring just behind the cellar and circulating it to keep the ageing rooms at the right temperature and humidity, is working brilliantly. Better still, the cellar is already taking on the distinctive Westcombe aroma that defined the old ageing rooms (and some of the character of our cheddars). The new cheeses are also moulding nicely, so we’re pleased with how things are looking at this point. We’re also pleased with all the empty shelves, the result of giving ourselves much more capacity to age cheese!
Our newly designed storage, packing and despatch area at the front of the cellar is a bit of a revelation too, ending years of niggling frustrations with our old set-up, and making things far more efficient and cohesive. While the cellar itself harks back to a pretty ancient way of doing things (using the cool, damp and stable conditions of a natural cave to store and preserve foods), the new packing area is distinctly 21st century, designed and built with state-of-the-art kit and workflow to ensure the highest standards are maintained at all times.
There’s a still a bit of work left to do: the mezzanine area about the packing and despatch rooms, where Dad’s office and our training area/education facility will be housed, is still taking shape, but work’s moving fast on these and they won’t be long now. Then it’s just a case of finishing off the facade to make the whole thing look suitably grand, but also to ensure it's understated and in keeping with nature and the original appearance of the hillside.
In the meantime, here's a video of ‘Tina’ in action, doing her thing and keeping the cheeses happy…
18 months, 15,000 tonnes of soil, 100,000 tonnes of concrete (give or take a few thousand) and more rebar ties than any of us want to remember later, our cheese cellar is finally taking shape. It's been a hell of a journey getting to this stage – the walls and roof up and ready for us to start back-filling the soil, and the floor starting to be laid ready for shelving – but we're more excited about this project than ever.
It hasn’t been easy, but such is the trial of tackling something of this scale (that’s never been done in this country before) and deciding to project-manage it ourselves! While the main structural elements of the cellar were cast and brought over from the French Alps (because no-one is making these types of structures in the UK), we’ve used our own builders here in Somerset, who’ve worked with us for years on various farm projects. And a very fine job they’ve done too.
From the initial dig back in the autumn of 2014 (read about the beginning of the project here), through a winter of muddy discontent waiting for the site to dry out, to a year digging and laying foundations, co-ordinating deliveries of enormous concrete structures (and rescuing French drivers from our Somerset roads), erecting pillars, setting rebars, building shutters, pouring cement, checking and re-checking plans, dealing with roof beams and cranes and arches, to even buying a cheese-turning robot from Switzerland… but we’re nearly there.
And for all the headaches of managing the project ourselves, it’s been so much more rewarding as a result. Yes, there have been more decisions than we ever thought possible, but each one means we’ve been able to tailor the cellar exactly to our needs. One development I’m particularly excited about is a system we’ve developed that will let us use our own water spring to cool the cellar, letting us maintain the delicate atmosphere we need to mature our cheeses for less energy consumption than a domestic fridge.
So it’s really starting to feel like we’re over the hardest part of this massive construction project and will soon be getting stuck into the more enjoyable parts, like kitting-out the interior, putting up the shelves, bringing in the cheese, setting up the robot and generally incorporating this momentous development into our day-to-day production. It’s a very exciting time, and we can’t wait to show off the cellar when it’s finished.
A while back the limitations of our current cheese store/ageing room really started to get to us, especially as we were in the process of trying to perfect every stage of our cheesemaking. We wanted much better control over temperature and humidity than our current store could offer, so we looked around for the best solution.
The answer we were looking for turned out to be an underground cheese cellar – a large concrete bunker buried in the earth. Being fortunate enough to have a good sized clay hill along the boundary of the dairy, this seemed the perfect solution. It's just a shame that this was in 2008 and, with the recession kicking in and the banks reeling, there was no chance of getting a loan for such an adventurous expansion.
So we reluctantly shelved the idea and concentrated on tangible changes, such as improving the milking parlour down at Manor Farm and perfecting the grazing pasture, silage production and winter feed for the cows. We also rebuilt our little cheese shop here at the dairy, added a new product to the range (our lovely Somerset Ricotta) and built a new website.
But the underground cellar idea didn't leave us, and only made more sense as time went by. To have a cellar right here in the hillside, where the cool earth would help keep the temperature at between 10 and 12 degrees all year around, where we could divert our spring through the rooms to keep the humidity constant, where we'd have vastly more space to play with AND be able to have our packing and cutting room right where the cheeses mature… it just had to be done.
But we still weren't absolutely certain until we visited the Comté cellars of Fromageries Marcel Petite in the Jura Mountains of France. Established in 1966, this enormous cheese-ageing complex is built around an old Napoleonic fort 3600 feet up in an Alpine forest. Expanded over the years with multiple ageing suites built into the earth around the original fort, the affinage today stores a staggering 180,000 rounds of cheese. They even have a fleet of robot helpers who work day and night, lifting, washing and turning the cheeses to aid their maturation. We are indebted to the Petite family and their team for the time and knowledge they shared with us, our trips over there really helped sealed the decision in our minds.
So it's full steam ahead here at the dairy, with the second week of digging well underway and things moving on nicely. The hillside has all but disappeared and a new one has temporarily formed in the field behind. We also owe a big thanks to all our Westcombe neighbours for their patience and encouragement as we work to get the new cellar built and the next phase of Westcombe Dairy underway. Roll on springtime when we'll hopefully be ready to show it off!
We were pleased to welcome a group from Cookhouse (the cooking side of Soho House) to the dairy recently for a tour and a cheese and beer tasting (in conjunction with The Wild Beer Co).
Cookhouse staff from both Soho House's London venues and nearby Babington House joined us for the afternoon, learning about artisan cheese and craft beer production first-hand from the makers, and then having a taste through our products before heading off to Babington House to make chutney in the open air!
It was lovely to meet everyone and we hope you enjoyed the visit as much as we did! Until next time… Tom
We get some pretty odd requests to make bespoke cheeses from time to time, but none as crazy as the day Jamie Oliver called up to see if I'd be interested in adding a kilo of white Alba truffles to one of our Westcombe Cheddars!
Now, I'm not really a fan of 'flavoured' cheeses. I tend to think unwelcome additions can really upset the delicate balance of a fine cheese. During their year-long maturation, our Cheddars go through a complex fluctuation of bacteria, acidity and PH activity that, if we've used our know-how, the best raw ingredients, and kept them in the right conditions, results in amazing cheese. But start chucking in additional elements and things can quickly go a bit pear shaped.
But what could I say to Jamie? Truffles in a cheddar? What an opportunity to experiment with this most delectable ingredient, and who knows, it might just work! Well, I'm glad to say it was a great success and produced a completely unique cheddar with a sublime umami character and incredible depth of flavour.
And what became of these epic White Truffle Cheddars? Well, we only made two so obviously there wasn't enough to sell here at the shop (and of course the price would be astronomical!).
So Jamie held a special 'Truffle Cheddar' event at Fifteen in London. Head chef Jon Rotheram devised a seven-course menu around the cheeses, and the evening became a special charity fundraising event for a few lucky punters. Read about Fifteen's Celebrations of Westcombe Dairy's White Truffle Cheddar evening here. Tom.
Over the course of Westcombe Dairy's hundred-year history, we've picked up quite a few awards for our cheeses. All of these have been greatly appreciated and none has been taken lightly. Being recognised for our hard work and integrity in farming and cheesemaking is always hugely rewarding and humbling.
However, being nominated, and then going on to win, the BBC Food & Farming Awad 2012 for Best Food Producer (alongside Pump Street Bakery) was the crowing glory of all our recognition so far.
The work the BBC and their judges put into researching and finding worthy candidates, and then the time they spend deliberating over the nominees and who best represents the nation's food producers/growers in each category, is second to none.
For our little dairy farm to go on and win Best Food Producer (alongside the excellent Pump Street Bakery in Suffolk) was an extraordinary achievement and a massive honour.
So a big thank you to everyone involved, from our staff who help us keep the standards here at Westcombe so high, to the judges and organisers of the awards and to all the people who voted for us. Thanks! Tom.
2012 was a particularly good year for Westcombe Dairy. Not only did we win the prestigious Best Food Producer category at the BBC Food & Farming Awards, but we found a new tenant for our vacant warehouse next to the dairy in the form of The Wild Beer Co.
Set up by two ex-Bristol Beer Factory brewers Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis, the Wild Beer Co are making some of most exciting, innovative and downright delicious beer in Britain (possibly the world) right now.
What sets the Wild Beer Co apart is their approach: Andrew and Brett don't think like traditional brewers, they approach their beers like chefs create dishes. It's all about flavour and the amazing combinations that play with the drinker's perception and expectations to create truly remarkable beers. It's an approach that has seen them create some truly exceptional brews, from the refreshing Sourdough to the opulent Wildebeest.
And it's their approach that makes them such a great ally for Westcombe and such a joy to have around. Having like-minded, flavour-obsessed people working away in the same vicinity as us is the ultimate joy for any artisan food producer, and it didn't take long for Westcombe and the Wild Beer Co to join forces, not only with cheese and beer matching events, but with our excellent Cheese and Beer Festivals.
So in the spring of 2013 we held the first ever Westcombe Cheese & Wild Beer Festival here at the diary, as a celebration of all the good things going and a chance to say thanks to our loyal customers (and patient locals who put up with our delivery trucks!).
We transformed the dairy into a temple of cheese and beer delights, with stalls serving proper West Country ploughmans and our classic Westcombe cheese brick toasties. We also had Angus Hillary bring his Field 2 Fire pizza oven over to make a selection of wood-fired bruschettas, while the Wild Beer boys constructed their immense ten-tap Wild Beer bar (one for each of their beers).
There was eating, drinking, music, dancing, train rides, more drinking, more eating and the sun came out, but best of all, loads of people came out too, not just locals but from as far a field as Bristol (and even Sweden!).
In fact, our little festival was so good, we decided to have an even bigger and better one in 2014, for which we built our epic Westcombe burger shack, had ice cream made from our lovely Somerset Ricotta and built an even bigger marquee for carousing. The Wild Beer Co pulled out all the stops on their now even bigger and wilder range of beers, and a thoroughly good time was had by all. See you at the next one! Tom.
The Royal Bath and West Show is one of the biggest events on the Somerset agricultural calendar. Dating back 150 years, it's a proper historic event and one of the few remaining old-school farm shows left in the UK. At Westcombe Dairy we're very proud of our decade-long association with it.
Westcombe has picked up numerous awards and medals over our years of exhibiting at the Royal Bath & West, which is always an honour, but to be honest it's not really why we make the effort. The Bath & West is just a very special event, and if you've never been, make the next one a priority.
There's nothing quite like the Royal Bath & West Show. Aside for a trip to Wilkin's Cider Farm, there just aren't that many genuine Somerset experiences left. But the Bath & West has it all: from prize livestock displays and show-jumping, to sheep shearing trials, farming machinery demos and, of course, enough traditional Somerset food and drink to sink a ship!
The atmosphere at the Royal Bath & West is always great, with huge crowds coming out to join the fun and be part of one of the country’s biggest and best farming shows. It's a great opportunity to catch up with other producers, both old and new, and get stuck in meeting people.
Every year we pile our stall high with Westcombe Cheddar and Duckett's Aged Caerphilly, giving away loads of taster and pitting our lovely cheeses against the best the county has to offer.
So thanks to everyone who comes to say hello and buys some of our cheese – we're always blown away by people's response and it's always great to hear feedback from people on how they enjoy our cheeses.
Thanks also to the organisers and judges of the show, who have generously awarded our cheeses a raft of medals and trophies over the years. See you all again in 2015! Tom.
Back in 2007 we got together with West Country Farmhouse Cheesemakers, Deep Blue Sky ad agency and the brilliant PR agency Bray Leino to create Cheddarvision, a live, 24/7 webcam showing a Cheddar maturing in our ageing room from the day it was made until its maturation.
What started as a bit of fun and a chance to highlight the importance of time and terroir in the production of traditional Cheddar cheese quickly escalated into a proper 21st century internet phenomenon, with nearly 2 million people logging on to have a look our cheese – who was eventually named Wedginald!
The story was picked up everywhere, by all the big media outlets (British broadsheet newspapers, BBC radio and TV) as well as across Europe and in America. Just look at some of these links, from The Guardian, BBC News, Norway's Dag Bladet, and even the New York Times. To this day, 'Wedginald' has his own Wikipedia page and he/it became quite the celebrity, with appearances on BBC Children In Need and Glastonbury Festival, a Valentine's card from the US and a signed rugby ball from the England Rugby Team. It all went a bit mental.
And what became of Wedginald? Well, obviously he couldn't just mix back in with our other Cheddars, not with his new-found celebrity status. They'd turn on him for sure. So he was auctioned off by BBC Children In Need and was claimed by the highest bidder …in New Zealand! And that's where Wedginald ended up, flying first class courtesy of Air New Zealand to his new home on the other side of the world. I still don't really believe it myself, but it all happened! Tom.