Wednesday, April 02, 2014

On Location: Duckett's Aged Caerphilly at Westcombe Dairy

Westcombe Cheesemaker Tom Calver stands in the
doorway to the family's underground Caerphilly aging
cellar in Somerset County, England.
Perhaps without even realizing it, a maverick, next generation cheesemaker at Westcombe Dairy is rapidly changing the face of Old World cheesemaking in Somerset, England, bringing a fresh perspective and energy to the region's traditional cheeses.

While cheesemaker Tom Calver may be best known for making Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar - one of only three unpasteruized farmhouse cheddars left in England - today, he also crafts the amazing Duckett's Aged Caerphilly. The cheese is named for the late cheesemaker Chris Duckett, who taught Calver how to make the cheese before passing away in 2009. Just a year before, Calver, a trained chef, had fulfilled the role of prodigal son and returned to his family's dairy after an apprenticeship at Neal's Yard Dairy. He's since become the dairy's well-known lead cheesemaker, changing up the family's signature cheeses and creating new traditions.

While Duckett's Aged Caerphilly was always good, Tom's taken what is historically a Welsh cheese to a new level by converting one of the historic family home's cellars into a dedicated Caerphilly aging room and diverting a spring through it to create the perfect temperature and humidity for the cheese’s maturation.

Contrary to much of the horrible plastic Caerphilly cheese that we get in the United States, this real deal Caerphilly is rich with a clean lactic tang and flavors of fresh mushroom and citrus. Tasting it here in England has made me finally understand what all the fuss is about with this English cheese. The folks at Neal's Yard Dairy know this, too: "It's a tricky cheese to get right, but when everything comes together in concert, the result is magnificent, and this cheese stands among the finest in the world."

Duckett's Caerphilly, perfected by Tom Calver.
Of course when you point out this high praise to Tom, he generally looks fairly sheepish, shrugs his shoulders and contests he doesn't know what all the fuss is about. He'd rather spend time thinking up new ways to make old recipes better than take credit for what he's already done right.

Case in point: while few would argue it's hard to improve upon the family's traditional Westcombe Cheddar, a bandaged 50-pound drum of pure beauty, Calver is executing steps to take the cheese to the next level. He's using less starter culture and slowing down the make time, letting the milk and curd speak to him, rather than following a strict timing schedule that traditional Cheddar makers have adhered to for years.

During our visit today, he also unveiled a complicated scheme to change the way the curd for Westcombe Traditional Farmhouse Cheddar is cheddared, which involves a series of wooden plates and cheese cloths somehow pressed down on the slabs of curd. After attempting to demonstrate this new technique, he was basically greeted with a general look of WTF? from his American visitors. Of course, Calver was not phased by our skepticism even a tiny bit.

"My number one goal is to create a better texture, which will lead to a better flavor," he said. "My perfect texture is one that is al dente and a bit bitey. I'm going to do whatever it takes to get the cheese just right."

The current aging cellars for Westcombe Traditional
Farmhouse Cheddar.
Getting cheese just right is something Westcombe Dairy has been succeeding with for years. The company was launched in 1890 by Edith Cannon, whose traditional Cheddar was legendary in the region. In the early 1900s, records show a "Mr. and Mrs. Brickell" took over the farm and dairy, continuing to make cheddar. The second generation of Brickells grew the business in the 20th Century to include several neighboring farms and ramped up production.

Even the World Wars could not stop Westcombe Cheddar. The cheese not only survived the wars, it flourished in the decades of austerity that followed. During the 1960s, Richard Calver, Tom's father, joined the business as a partner, and to compete in the rapidly expanding industrial age, transitioned the company into making block cheddar and modernized the cheese factory. It wasn't until the artisan cheese renaissance of the late 1990s that the family reverted back to traditional bandaged big wheels. Today, Tom Calver continues the family quest to make superb, unpasteurized, bandaged cheddar wheels rivaled only by his counterparts, Jamie Montgomery and Keen's Farmhouse Cheddar. I would say he is succeeding.

And in further news, father and son Calver are contemplating expanding the dairy by building a 100-foot tunnel into the hill behind their cheesrie that will house an American "Jasper Hill-esque" type of aging facility. The expansion would allow the family to produce more cheese and expand further into the American export market.

"The excitement of the Americans towards cheese is infectious," Tom told us today. "You're looking for more flavor and more aged cheese, and we want to send more of that type of cheese your way." 

Bring it on, Tom!

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