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Westcombe: Returning to the Land

Westcombe: Returning to the Land

Westcombe is farming in a way that benefits their cheese, milk, animals, and the health of their land. They have made many changes to their farming system and to their cheesemaking over the past few years. Our cheese care team and cheesemongers are beginning to note the effects of these differences in recent batches of their cheese, and we wanted to understand what is happening on the farm to influence this. We visited Westcombe recently to see their changes first-hand and to learn what Tom and Richard Calver and their team envision for the future.

 

The history of cheesemaking at Westcombe in Somerset reaches back over 130 years to the activities of legendary cheddar maker Edith Cannon who hailed from nearby Batcombe. While the team at Westcombe may be making a cheese inspired by a 19th century recipe, they have brought their farming and cheesemaking practices firmly into the 21st. Inspiring father and son duo Richard and Tom Calver run the farm together and when Tom Calver took over management of cheesemaking in 2008 he did so with the view to master and improve every aspect of the cheese’s production. Tom, like many of our producers, now uses milk from his own herds on his own farms to make his cheese, which provides him with greater control over the quality of the milk. This means that changes can begin at the very start of the cheesemaking process  – the land.

 

Starting at the soil

We often see a link between exceptional cheese and non-intensive farming methods, as our producers’ respect for their raw materials extends to the land itself. Fertile, nutrient-rich soil provides the foundation for healthy crops and animals, which in turn helps to produce high-quality milk and delicious cheese. To improve the health of their soil and the sustainability of their farm, the Calvers have adopted methods of ‘regenerative agriculture', which are farming and grazing practices intended to not only do no harm to the land but to actively improve it.

One change that the Calvers are proud to have made is to have stopped growing maize. This is primarily because of the associated heightened risk of soil erosion but also because the crop wasn’t doing much to contribute to their cheese’s sensory profile. Instead, they are growing wheat and an ‘intercrop’ mixture of barley, peas, and vetch for wholecrop silage. In between harvests of these main crops, they are planting ‘cover crops’ of buckwheat, vetch, and forage rye. What is a cover crop, you might ask? It is a crop that is used to quite literally cover the soil that would otherwise be left bare after harvesting the main crop. Cover crops help to prevent soil erosion as the roots of the plants can improve the structure of the soil and helps to fix nitrogen in it.

Why is nitrogen important? Nitrogen is an essential nutrient for healthy crops, but in excess can have adverse environmental effects. Inorganic fertilisers are widely used to provide immediate, concentrated boosts of nitrogen to the plant, but they can be easier to over-use and don’t do much to benefit long-term soil health. An alternative is to manage nitrogen levels through natural sources like manure and nitrogen fixing crops. Tom and Richard have been gradually scaling back their use of inorganic fertilisers for years, and with the increased use of nitrogen-fixing crops like vetches and peas in their wholecrop cereal mixtures they are seeing their requirement for inorganic nitrogen sources take a steep nosedive. For example, their wheat crop planted in autumn 2020 needed no further nitrogen boost because their preceding cover crops had succeeded in fixing all that was needed in the soil.

The benefits of flowering cover crops like peas and vetch extend past soil coverage and nitrogen fixation. They also benefit the local wildlife by acting as a nectar source for pollinators. When they are harvested, these crops are turned to starch and protein-rich feed for the cows. Like many regenerative farming practices, the benefits travel full circle to affect the soil, the environment, and the animals.

 

Westcombe's head cheesemaker Rob Howard in a field of buckwheat. Photo by Nick Millard.

 

Encouraging biodiversity in pastures

The Calvers are in the process of turning all of their grazing pastures to multispecies ‘herbal leys.’ This means that the cows will graze on a diverse mixture of grasses, legumes, and herbs that is based on the mixes championed by Frank Newman Turner, the British pioneering organic farmer whose books 'Fertility Farming' and 'Fertility Pastures' are regarded as classics of practical organic husbandry. You can find fescues, timothy, cocksfoot, yarrow, plantain, chicory, parsley, burnet, as well as white, red, Alsike, and sweet clovers all growing together in Westcombe’s grazing pastures. In the late spring and summer, these fields come alive with flowers and the local wildlife that flock to them. 

This diversity in plant life is wonderful for the soil, as the plants all have root structures of varying depths that benefit the soil structure and could make the fields more resilient to variable weather and drought conditions associated with climate change. The Calvers are also changing the way that their herd uses these fields by moving to a system of paddock grazing, which will see the cows fully grazing an area of the field before moving onto the next. This system allows the plants to fully recover after being defoliated by the cows and before the next round of grazing. Ultimately these will be healthier plants forming significantly more productive pastures.

How can all these changes translate into the milk? The man spearheading much of the activity in the pastures is herdsman Nick Millard. Nick is a passionate advocate for the benefit farming practice and animal diet can have on the sensory properties of cheese, even writing his BSc dissertation on the topic. He believes that one of the keys to great milk and cheese is providing the animals with a varied diet. “As a simple rule,” Nick explains, “the more species of grass, plants and herbs present in the pastures that the cows are grazing, then the greater the flavour potential is for cheesemaking. Milks can taste pretty similar when in their fresh state, but made into cheese and matured for weeks, months, years, then you’ll have very different flavour profiles from a milk that is from cows who eat flowery, multispecies grass leys, when compared with one that has a high cereal diet, with lots of maize silage and grass silage made from a ryegrass monoculture.”

 

Detail of the herbal ley in Westcombe's 'School House' Field. Photo by Nick Millard.

 

Using all of their available resources

Off the fields and back at farm headquarters, sustainability is still a guiding force and the Calvers try not to let anything go to waste. They produce meat as well as cheese by rearing the herd’s bull calves in the same high welfare, free-roaming manner that they do the dairy cows. You can buy charcuterie made with Westcombe’s pasture-raised rose veal that has been reared and cured on site. Over in the dairy itself, the cheesemakers use the whey that is a by-product of cheesemaking to make ricotta, which is a favourite ingredient amongst our restaurant customers and is also available in our retail shops.

When the Calvers needed to replace their old maturing room in 2015, they undertook the enormous project of building a facility into a hill on the Westcombe farm full of insulating clay. Instead of relying on electricity, the enormous cheese cavern draws on a natural source to regulate the atmosphere. Water that rises from a spring in the hill is circulated around the cellar, cooling and humidifying the air to create the ideal maturing conditions for the cheese.

 

Inside the cheese cellar at Westcombe.

 

We can’t overlook the valuable resource that is the experience in the current Westcombe team itself. In addition to herdsman Nick Millard (who before coming to Westcombe spent five years as herdsman at Holden Farm, makers of Hafod cheddar), head cheesemaker Rob Howard (also formerly of Holden Farm) joined in September 2019 to take over their Cheddar making. For a wonderful read on Rob’s experiments with historical Cheddar recipes, read their recent blog post here.

 

The cheese will change over time

It will take time for the changes made at the farm level to come through fully in the cheese, but we are already noticing differences in structure and flavour, particularly in Westcombe’s territorial cheese Duckett’s Caerphilly (inherited from Somerset cheesemaker Chris Duckett) which is made with the same milk as their Cheddar. Caerphilly cheese has been made by Somerset Cheddar makers since the 1800s, its smaller format and younger maturation period providing valuable cashflow while their longer maturing cheddars came of age. As the Westcombe team recently described on their Instagram, “[Duckett’s Caerphilly] has advantages to us in the form of a kind of milk barometer, almost instantly (in cheese terms, at least) expressing the changes we are making to our farming practices and their effect on the milk and its cheesemaking ability. The Caerphilly coming out of the store right now is displaying a beautiful suppleness and warmer, creamier flavours, all underpinned by those reassuringly characteristic citrus and mineral notes.”

Nick can sum up the direction of Westcombe’s farming and cheesemaking in one sentence: “I have come to the conclusion that if your dairy farming is doing good things for biodiversity, and therefore good things for nature and the wider environment, then it is doing good things for your cheese.” Our recent visits to Westcombe have been an inspiring insight into the work they are doing to continually improve their land and refine their cheesemaking. They will be one to watch over the coming years as the results of the changes made on their farm and the passion and expertise of their team continue to influence their cheese.

 

Interested in learning more?
 
Often, the best way to learn is to taste. Add Westcombe Cheddar and/or Duckett’s Caerphilly to your next order. Find Duckett’s Caerphilly in all our shops, and Westcombe Cheddar on the counter in Islington and Borough Market.
 
For more on regenerative agriculture methods, consider exploring these recommendations from Tom and Nick.
 
‘Dirt to Soil’ by Gabe Brown
‘English Pastoral’ by James Rebanks
The World Ending Fire by Wendell Berry
‘Fertility Pastures’ by Frank Newman Turner
‘Native: Life in a Vanishing Landscape’ Patrick Laurie 
‘A Sand County Almanac’ Aldo Leopold 
 
And for something completely different, listen to what it’s like to be a cow in Nick’s milking parlour on Milton Farm, where he often plays classical music for them whilst milking.
 
Beethoven’s Complete Symphonies (particularly Nos. 1 & 6), conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner
Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, performed by Isabella Faust and conducted by Claudio Abbado
Franck & Vierne violin sonatas, performed by Alina Ibragimova

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