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!