I bought some Westcombe Cheddar before Christmas. It was made with raw milk and it was delicious. As our understanding of microbes gradually develops, it begins to seem possible that, rather than being a threat to health, unpasteurised dairy products may actually be more beneficial to us than pasteurised. Westcombe is not far from Wondergut HQ, so I contacted Richard Calver, who very kindly offered to show me round the farm.
One Man, his cows and the microbes
The future of farming, as I see it, requires a unique combination of looking back and looking forward. Looking back to traditional practices and methods, learning from them and reviving them where appropriate. Looking forward and embracing modern technology to the extent that it, too, can help us better care for our natural world and improve the quality of the food we produce and consume. Westcombe, under the guidance of Richard and Tom is working hard at doing both these things.
What started out as one young man, 12 cows, 1 dog, very little money and a firm desire to farm, is now a cutting-edge cheese-making practice, determined to push the boundaries of good farming and excellent cheese-making.
Westcombe owns most of the land it farms, some of which has never, in living memory, been ploughed. Use of antibiotics is kept to a minimum, as are GM feeds, pesticides and fertilisers. Everything revolves around the quality of the milk and the wellbeing of the cows.
Cheese and microbes
Cheese is a condensed form of milk. It is produced by the fermentation action of microbes. At Westcombe, a microbial starter culture & animal rennet (an enzyme complex made in the 4th stomach of ruminants) are added to the raw milk. These act to coagulate the milk into curds and whey. The curds are cut with a peg mill which maximises the surface area of the curd for salt to be absorbed. Salt helps in deterring pathogens as well as drawing out whey. Mixing, compression and salt helps to extract more whey and the curds are then compressed in cheese presses for 3 days – again, to force out whey.
Next, the cheese is wrapped in lard and muslin and stored for between 11 and 18 months. The rind is formed by dipping the cheese into hot water. Natural moulds that exist in the cheese store, then develop on the rind over time.
Traditional raw milk cheeses, such as Westcombe Cheddar, fundamentally rely upon the microbes indigenous to the milk to carry out the fermentation process that will ultimately produce the cheese. They also rely upon moulds to help form the rind and age the cheeses. In fact, the type of moulds that develop on the rind has such influence on the flavour of the cheese, that when they built their new, state of the art underground cheese store, Richard and Tom blew air from the old store across to the new one in order to seed it with the right types of mould.
Different animals on different pastures, in different weather conditions with different microbes will produce very different milk. And different culturing methods, coagulation methods, temperature treatment, salting, wrapping, moulds, aging times and conditions all create the unique qualities that define different cheese. That is a lot of variables with which to grapple to produce a consistently excellent cheese.
Making raw cheese is a challenging, niche market. It involves risk. By pasteurising milk, standard producers don’t need to worry too much about what went before – microbially-speaking – because pasteurisation wipes out the microbes. But it is totally indiscriminate and results in an absence of all microbial life, which we are beginning to understand, is not necessarily a good thing.
With raw cheese, producers cannot rely on the “backstop” of pasteurisation. Attention to detail is crucial. Richard had a problem with starlings in the cow barns a while ago – pooing on the cows, pooing in their food. Starling poo in the food can be eaten by the cows which risks problematic bacteria making it into the milk. Starling poo on the bedding can make it onto the cows’ udders and then into the milk. Richard has solved this issue by installing a laser system in the barn which has deterred the starlings.
If the farm tests positive for TB, it cannot use its own raw milk until it passes two clear TB tests in the cows at 60-day intervals.
And whilst the cows are pasture-grazed in the Summer, they are also supplemented with carefully managed buffer feed, most of which is grown on the farm. Richard found that, without this, the variety in what they ate and how much they ate, depending on the weather, had unpredictable effects on the quality of the cheese, so some level of supplemental feed all year round was introduced.
The cheese-making process is fascinating – simple, but at the same time, mind-bogglingly complex. And Richard has spent a large portion of his life (latterly with the help of his son, Tom), working out what works and what doesn’t.
Using a bought in, scientifically-produced microbial starter culture, which is added to the raw milk at the start of the cheese-making process, ensures a consistency in the quality of the cheese they produce. If they use the naturally-occurring bacteria in their milk, alone, then, for now, the result can be, as Richard puts it “Wild” which is apparently not that appealing to their customers!
They are working on this though – Tom recognises that the Westcombe microbial signature is part of their terroir and if they, over time, are able to manage their variables (which, in turn, influence their milk microbiome) – grasses grown, bedding the cows lie on, feed – they may be able to produce consistently pleasing cheeses by simply using the microbial cultures that occur naturally in their cows’ milk.
Tom is starting to research whether the microbiome on cows’ udders has an impact on the milk microbiome and therefore on cheese quality. I could barely contain my excitement when I saw, on the wall of Tom’s office, pie charts illustrating bacterial and yeast genera in the milk as snap-shots on different given days over the last year. They farm different farms and not only was the microbial content of the milk different on each day, but you could tell each farm apart based on the microbial content in the milk. This is not surprising, but the fact that a cheese-maker in Somerset is methodically and logically trying to make sense of the microbial world of his cows to improve his husbandry and cheese-making, is.
This line of thought has led Richard and Tom to research whether what the cows are bedded on influences the microbial environment on the udder and therefore in the cheese. The cows at Westcombe are currently bedded on deep sand, which Richard likes. But there is discussion about trying straw instead to see what effect this has microbially.
One cheese-maker wipes down the cows’ udders with woodchips before milking to optimise the udder microbiome. Richard points out that there has to be a pragmatic balance between theory and practice. They don’t yet know if, how or why this practice might help produce better cheese. Richard is prepared to try it but, having farmed for over 50 years now, he asks – how will this work in practice? What will the cowman say if I ask him to do this? Where will we dispose of all of the woodchips after we have wiped 100s of cows’ udders twice a day?
I was fascinated to learn that the brine bath (a large vat of salt water) used for the production of their Caerphilly is 30 years old and has NEVER been changed. This, too, is part of the terroir of the Caerphilly. They test the brine bath regularly but – guess what – the salt levels and useful bacteria ensure that this environment remains perfectly safe for the job it needs to perform. And, indeed, makes its very own contribution to the taste of the Caerphilly.
The Westcombe Cheddars are stored in a state-of-the-art cave for between 11 to 18 months – no vacuum-packed plastic for these cheddars. The temperature of the cave is managed by a water-cooling system run by spring water from the hill behind the cave. And they are tended to by Tina the Turner – the first ever cheese robot (this is what I meant by Westcombe embracing a combination of traditional and modern technology). Tina is also able to dust and hoover each cheese to prevent cheese mites.
Between them, Richard and Tom aim to embrace and harness the terroir that is Westcombe. They recognise that this requires a better understanding of the microbes involved in the process of raising cows, cow husbandry, milking cows and making cheese.
Tom made a point that really stuck with me. Food production, for too many years now has focussed on preservation. On shelf life. Processing and preserving to enable us to transport food long distances, keep it a long time and still be able to eat it has taken priority over ensuring the genuine nutritional value of food. And we are paying the price in terms of our health.
Our understanding of our dependence upon and symbiosis with the microbes in us, on us and around us for good health is growing. Nutritional value is about so much more than simply the fat/carbohydrate/protein/calorie content of food. Cheese produced from cows who have grazed on grass grown on bacterially rich soil, who have been fed good quality GM-free hard feed, minimal antibiotics, who are cared for and valued and where the milk they produce remains unpasteurised, will result in a food that contains important nutrition for us in forms we don’t yet fully understand (microbes).
The one factor that caused me pause for thought, though, was the irony in this whole process. For us to be able to consume cow’s milk products, cows must lactate. To lactate, they need to give birth. For us to be able to have the milk instead of the calf, the calf has to be removed from its mother. At Westcombe, this is done with thought, compassion and knowledge. They ensure the calves get the colostrum from their mother but after that, they are fed on powdered milk. I understand that there are all sorts of complexities involved in feeding calves. But in humans, certainly, there is interesting research suggesting that breast milk helps infant guts to develop the microbiome they need at a critical point in their development to maximise their chances of long-term health. Is this not the same in cows? The truth is that we don’t know yet. But if it also applies to cows, this will pose an interesting conundrum for farms such as Westcombe. Again, Richard’s words – of theory and practice ring in my ears. As our understanding grows, practices will change and develop and it seems certain that Richard and Tom will be at the coal-face of this process.
We are only just beginning to understand just how influential microbes are in almost every part of our lives and in the world around us. The jigsaw puzzle is inordinately complex and it is going to take individuals prepared to experiment in very practical ways to start to bring answers for the rest of us. I am very thankful that I was able to meet two such boundary-pushing people at Westcombe.