Cheddar is Britain's best-loved cheese. From supermarket blocks to farmhouse truckles, 50% of all cheese bought in the UK each year is Cheddar. A key step in making this ubiquitous cheese is "cheddaring". Slabs of curd are stacked and turned as acidity rises and the curds bond to the consistency of chicken fillets. This drives out more whey and produces the dense texture characteristic of cheddar-style cheese. On a recent trip to Somerset, Clare learnt more about this process with a visit to Westcombe Dairy, nestled in the very heart of Cheddar making country.
Westcombe Dairy is the family-run farm where Tom Calver and his small team make and mature their flagship cheese, Westcombe Cheddar. Tom has been working in the business for around fifteen years after a short career as a chef. Clare chatted with him over the cheese making vats as 3,500 litres of raw milk were scalded and stirred to start the day's make. Each year 120 tonnes of clothbound Cheddar are made at Westcombe using milk from the farm's own cows. Kept as two herds, around 350 cows graze the green Somerset hills around the dairy under the watchful eye of Tom's father, Richard.
Talking about his raw milk cheeses, Tom explained that each day he and the team must react to the milk they receive from the parlour and flex their make accordingly. Tweaks to the recipe were currently being made to alter the dryness of the cheese, as recently its texture hasn't been quite right. After the curd had been ladled and left to set, Clare got hands on with the cutting blade as Tom and his team began the cheddaring process, creating brick-sized slabs of curd which they quickly stacked and rotated to drive out more moisture from the curd before milling and putting into moulds for pressing.
Alongside Cheddar, that day the team were making a small vat of Duckett's Caerphilly - a recipe brought to the farm in the late 1990s by maker Chris Duckett before his retirement. In the next room, whey from both the Cheddar and Caerphilly vats was being made into Westcombe Ricotta with a second "cooking" at 90 degrees to bring about binding of whey proteins. This ricotta would then be drained overnight and chilled in little plastic baskets before being dispatched for sale.
Leaving the cheese room, Tom gave Clare a peak into the awesome maturing room across the farmyard. Excavated into the hillside, this is an enormous concrete walled warehouse with the high ceiling, chilled air and reverent silent of a cathedral. The air is filled with an enticing sweet and fruity fragrance. On towering wooden shelves, 5,500 truckles of Westcombe Cheddar were quietly maturing, each one weighing around 24kg.
This warehouse is home to the UK's only cheese-turning robot, technology developed in Europe to turn large Alpine cheeses such as Comté. Installed at Westcombe in 2014, the robot hums gently up and down the aisles. It methodically removes individual cheeses from the shelves, then lowers, turns and returns them to the exact same shelf spot. On average cheeses are turned every ten days, although young cheeses are turned more frequently than older ones which are also brushed for cheese mites as they are being turned.
As with the recipe, Tom is always seeking to tweak the maturing process for improvements in his cheese. He would like to see more leopard rinds on the shelves with greater variety of colours and mould patterns developing. Recently he is also begun experimenting with a single, rather than double, cloth covering but with truckles maturing for up to eighteen months, it will be next year before he can find how this affects the finished flavour and texture. A bit of a wait but the exquisite grassy notes of Westcombe Cheddar are definitely worth it, with its complex savoury flavours that linger on the tongue - the perfect snack for Clare's long drive back to Suffolk.