Alumni Stories: Tom Calver from Westcombe Dairy

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Alumni Stories: Tom Calver from Westcombe Dairy

​Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy in Somerset did his professional diploma at Leiths before returning to his family’s farm and devoting himself to cheesemaking. His award-winning cheeses can now be found in fine food stores and Michelin star restaurants. Tom is a leading spokesperson for British artisan cheese and regenerative agriculture practices.

What brought you to Leiths?

“I was never really an academic. I persuaded my headmaster to let me do A Levels but after a year we concluded it probably wasn’t the best decision so my parents kind of asked me what the hell I was going to do with my life. Funnily enough, it was the time when Jamie Oliver had just launched the Naked Chef and literally they walked into the lounge when I was watching that and I said well, I’ll just do that. So at 17, I moved up with my sister in Brixton and enrolled at Leiths. My mum and dad were amazingly supportive.”

What persuaded you to move into cheesemaking?

“I got a job working for Barclays Capital in Canary Wharf where I ended up cooking for all the high-flying directors which was great. During that period my father – he’s very much the farmer – saw that we needed to add value to the milk so he had decided to get back into cheesemaking but was having a bit of a struggle to sell it. And I found that working for investment bankers was OK but wasn’t the most rewarding. I also decided that actually my heart was in Somerset and I wanted to give dad a hand.”

“I realised after three very long years the reason why it was such a struggle to sell it was because the cheese really wasn’t very good. So I found myself getting lured into the dairy more and more, so much so I took over all cheesemaking. We also had a lady who had a doctorate in biochemistry who came into the dairy as well so we focused on the science behind cheese making and it spiralled from there.”

How has your approach to cheesemaking changed since you started?

“At first, you can get really wrapped up in the idea of tradition but the more I’ve done it, I’ve realised that tradition can be not very helpful sometimes because it suggests that there’s only one way of doing something. Farming and food is always in evolution. We’re currently very much rooted in the regen movement. I think that it’s the future. If we can farm in a practice which works alongside nature rather than constantly trying to control or destroy it then that’s going to be positive. Our main focus is quality and expressing a flavour profile of a specific time and place.

I hark back to what I learned at Leiths which is you’re halfway there if you source the right ingredients. Looking at our main ingredient, the milk, I felt that we could farm in a better way which would give us more flavour in the milk.”

How has your Leiths training helped you?

“My Leiths training has been massively valuable throughout my whole career. It provided me with discipline there that I certainly needed and also the ability to understand flavours. It set me on a path for having this, I feel, unique look at agriculture and farming which I think stems from my time there. Hopefully it’s turning a corner but where we’re at is most farmers don’t actually realise that they’re food producers creating nutritious delicious food that you really want to eat rather than a commodity.”

Which cheeses do you produce?

“The main cheese that we make is the cheddar [a cylindrical clothbound cheddar made of raw milk using traditional starter cultures], also a beautiful cheese called Duckett’s Caerphilly. I started making ricotta about 12 years ago; I’ve been really really pleased with that. We’ve also branched out into charcuterie. It feels like that’s the key to it all, rather than just being dairy farmers, having a diverse range of things you’re doing.”

You are one of the co-founders of Landrace bakery and restaurant in Bath. Can you tell us about your involvement there?

“We took on the shop next door to my wife’s hairdressing business in Bath in 2011 and sublet it to a café-restaurant. We decided we wanted a bit more control over who was in there. Andrew [Lowkes] , who I knew from Neal’s Yard Dairy and Pump Street Chocolate, came to us with this crazy idea of creating a bakery. It’s been really interesting to create more of these interconnected links with the various enterprises we’re involved with. We’re now growing four acres of a wheat variety called YQ and we’ve been growing heritage grains for the bakery. The next evolution of it is getting a mill so we can mill the flour on site to take to the bakery. Before the pandemic, Landrace was very much a bakery and café. When the world kind of woke up again we decided there was an opportunity to have a restaurant upstairs. I’m incredibly biassed but it’s perfect food, food you really want to eat and it’s very connected with what’s going on on the farm.”

Author: Hilary Armstrong


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