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A little piece of cheese heaven – Tavistock Real Cheese Fair

September 11, 2011

Cheeses at the Tavistock cheese fairPlunging into the throng, armed with a toothpick, the soft sounds of a jazz trio in the background adding another layer to the gentle murmurs of enjoyment, I was ready to attack.  My challenge, shared with everyone else among the thronging crowd, was to sample as many of the artisan cheeses in the room as possible.   No mean feat as there were at least fifty of them made by producers from Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and a few farther afield.

Food festivals abound in the UK and they range from the Ludlow Food Festival which takes over the whole town (and involves a sausage trail, a festival loaf trail and a real ale trail) to several chilli events the most famous being the West Dean Chilli Fiesta, to The Isle of Wight Garlic Festival but this has to be just about the most ideal in my book.  Eat cheese, drink cider, talk to cheesemakers, listen to jazz, then go outside into the Devon sunshine in the stannery town of Tavistock – it doesn’t get any better than this.

Country Cheeses

The Tavistock Real Cheese Fair is held annually on the Saturday and Sunday of August Bank holiday weekend and organised by Country Cheeses as a showcase for their suppliers.  Country Cheeses is a down to earth little shop – the cheeses they stock are second to none and very local in origin.  They even have some exclusives that they commission, often with their staff getting involved in tandem with the cheese-maker in production, such as ‘Bliss’ made with Philip Rainbow in Somerset.  They are not as well-known as somewhere like The Fine Cheese Co in Bath (another of my favourite cheese haunts) and, in my opinion, could learn a bit from them in terms of promotion and presentation although this could be changing – I hear they are on TV this Autumn with the River Cottage team.

Tavistock Real Cheese Fair

But back to the tasting. You start by climbing the stairs in the Tavistock Town Hall and being welcomed into its dark-panelled and heraldic depths with a booklet to make notes in and a cocktail stick. Sunlight streams in through tall, mullion windows onto the trestle tables which line the room,  covered in cheese.  From mountains of huge cheeses like the Keens, Montgomery and Westcombe unpasteurised Cheddar in greyish stacks which resemble the granite tors that surround the town, to little hills of carefully cut tasting chunks, exquisite morsels on china plates. Every cheese has a different character and all are made with passion demonstrated by the eagerness of the artisans who man the stalls to explain exactly why their cheese is different and why you should taste it.  Believe me – it’s cheese heaven.

Devon sage

Britain nearly lost its cheese heritage as mass-production of cheap food after WW2 started to erode traditional cheese-making techniques.  A further blow came when cheese made of unpasteurised milk was almost outlawed in the 1980s.  There was a listeria outbreak in Europe involving Vacherin cheeses, which killed 30 people and was blamed on unpasteurised milk, but this was ultimately proved to have been caused by cheese made from pasteurised milk. Major Patrick Rance (cheese expert and campaigner) produced evidence which stopped a bill to ban raw milk for cheese as he recognised the importance of using unpasteurised milk for individuality and taste.  (There’s an excellent profile of him on podcast on the BBC Food Programme).

Mongomery and Keen's upasteurised CheddarNowhere is this individuality more evident than on the stall which displays Montgomery, Keens and Westcombe – the only three cheeses entitled to the Slow Food designation ‘Artisan Somerset Cheddar’.  To qualify for this accolade, the cheese must be made in Somerset – where the damp climate is recognised as the best for growing lush pastures – from the milk of the farm’s own cows, allowing control of quality from start to finish.  The cheese must be made using raw milk and traditional starter cultures.  By using raw milk, all the natural flavours come through in the final product, giving the Cheddar its full fragrant and earthy character.

Tasting unpasteurised Cheddars

My teens trying to decide which Cheddar is best

The amazing thing about these three cheeses is that they are made from milk from the same breed of cattle, in the same way, within about a 20 mile radius.  They all taste very different and  I mentioned this to the man on the stand.   Our favourite changes every year but he said that in fact they change from week to week each batch being completely different.  One in the eye for standardisation and the reason you should buy your cheese from someone who lets you taste before you buy.  It also shows the effect of cheese-making ‘terroir’, the skill and mood of the maker on this handmade and unique product.  A big block of Keens accompanied me back to Dubai this year (more of this later).  We also tasted their latest experiment to make cheese in the style of artisan Swiss cheese – a completely counter-intuitive process if you are used to making Cheddar apparently.  It knocked the socks off any Emmental cheeses I had tasted before.

Cheeses and producersThe family Prosser mingled, tasted and sipped, meeting up from time to time to share finds.  We all seemed to agree on  Miss Muffet made by Whalesborough in Cornwall, a creamy but addictive curd cheese with a slightly nutty flavour.  My youngest daughter sighed over wild garlic Yarg from Lynher Dairies (also in Cornwall) which was pungent in the extreme and wrapped in wild garlic leaves.  The older one liked Devon Sage a fragrant, herby cheese made solely for Country Cheeses by Curworthy on Stockbeare Farm close to nearby Okehampton.  They both adore smoked cheese which has never really appealed to me but I also bought a slab of Devon Smoake nonetheless.  Cropwell Bishop has the most addictive Stilton which was drawing a crowd and then they whipped out a cheese that had the room abuzz – a white Stilton packed with dates and orange, like Christmas pudding with a side serving of cheese.

Goat's cheese

KP alerted me to some Fuller’s beer-washed Baronet on a very attractive stall and I met the producer Julianna Sedli, a Hungarian living in Wiltshire attempting to make French Reblochon-style cheese with a more distinctive taste by using organic unpasteurised milk from Jersey cows on the Neston Farm Estate.  I loved her cheeses especially the golden, ripe Baronet and hung around for a long time chatting and tasting.  Her details are in the list of exhibitors below and The Old Cheese Room is a name to watch.

Baronet cheeses on The Old Cheese Room stand

Sharpham Wines and Cheese had an impressive array and I had to ‘remind’ myself of how good the Coulommiers-style Sharpham cheese had tasted on our visit a few days earlier (more to follow in another post).  Countryman‘s selection of local cider was a great accompaniment to all our munching, KP bought quite a few jars of Waterhouse Fayre chutney to test his luggage allowance and we dipped into Jay’s Fruit pastes which are absolutely smashing with cheese (and I regretfully forgot to add to my shopping basket this year).  Devon Blue (cow’s milk) seduced me this year and I packed a wedge instead of my usual excellent Harbourne Blue (sheep’s milk), both made by Ticklemore near Totnes in Devon.

Cider, cheese, chutney and fruit pastesReplete, we wandered out into Bedford Square – no lunch was necessary!  Entry to the Cheese Fair is free and you are not obliged to buy (only the wine and cider is on sale) – if you want to purchase cheese you visit the Country Cheeses shop at the back of the Pannier Market.  This lack of commerce removes any pressure from the tasting experience and is part of what makes the event so special.  I returned to the shop a few days later and bought several kilos of our favourites to take back to the UAE.  I find that if kept in the cold hold in my suitcase they travel perfectly well.  No sniffer dog has accosted me to date!

Tavistock town hall

You can see a list of the producers at the fair here, there’s also quite a lot of info on the Country Cheeses website.   I met food writer and journalist Fiona Beckett during the summer and she mentioned her excellent cheese blog, The Cheeselover covering some other cheese events.  If you don’t have a good local cheese shop you can order online from quite a few sources including The Fine Cheese Co (if in the UK).

If you are in the UAE and looking for good cheese my favourite hunting grounds are:

  • Carrefour – mainly for Vacherin Mont D’or, which is only available at certain times of the year (from late October).
  • Lafayette Gourmet – in Dubai Mall in Galleries Lafayette there is a cheese room stocking mainly French and Italian cheeses.
  • Aswaaq – they stock Yeo Valley Organic cheddar
  • Oeno at The Westin has a cheese room to choose from when you dine there
  • The Sofitel at The Walk, JBR does an excellent wine and French cheese night
  • I have yet to try the newly opened Jones the Grocer

Would I like to make my own cheese? You bet…and coincidently just found a bottle of vegetarian rennet in Choitrams so watch this space…

Goat' cheese

Have you got an artisanal cheesey favourite, a cheesemonger you adore or a festival of food you’d like to share?  Leave a comment and make my day.

  1. September 11, 2011 8:08 am

    Unpasturised imports were banned from Australia until about 5-10 years ago. It was such a pleasure to finally see Roquefort on the shelves again! If you missed out on the fruit pastes, Jones the Grocer in Dubai now stocks the Maggie Beer quince and pear varieties. Also, the date paste in Choithrams is super with a tangy blue.

  2. September 11, 2011 8:53 am

    I am definetly a cheese lover. There are many kind of cheese and every one of them has their different taste and uses. Cheese also gives calcium that makes our bones strong.

  3. September 11, 2011 9:29 am

    We have a good cheese store nearby, but it is nothing near to the utter heaven of this post 🙂

    • September 11, 2011 9:51 am

      I can’t remember eating much cheese when I visited South Africa (in 1997) Cindy. Are there any local producers?

  4. September 11, 2011 11:18 am

    wonderful post on beautiful cheese and the passion of cheesemakers. like your Dubai tips!

  5. September 11, 2011 12:16 pm

    All of this wonderful cheese would be wasted on my – I have a very simple cheese palette and will stick to the day-to-day cheddar, gouda and the likes.
    Beautifully photographed.
    Have a happy Sunday.
    🙂 Mandy

  6. September 11, 2011 12:21 pm

    So… Paradise does exist !

  7. September 11, 2011 12:40 pm

    What a great post, Sally. It’s both entertaining and packed full of information – the perfect combination. I love the idea of a Stilton packed with dates and oranges – how spectacular.

    • September 11, 2011 1:09 pm

      This is great praise coming from such a brilliant scribe so thank you. The Stilton was extraordinary.

  8. September 11, 2011 12:55 pm

    What a fantastic post Sally – really appeals to the cheesaholic in me 🙂 Unpasteurised milk cheese imports have been a bit of an issue here in the UAE – need to do more digging. I adore Stilton so my vote goes for the Cropwell Bishop Stilton with dates and orange! Neals Yard Dairy was always a favourite in London, but I hear it’s gone downhill. And in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Jones The Grocer is a must.

    • September 11, 2011 1:01 pm

      And much thanks for the link too 🙂 x

    • September 11, 2011 1:08 pm

      Baker and Spice used to stock Montgomery but not for a while. Vacherin is unpasteurised – I hope this still makes it’s way through UAE customs. Sounds like we need to meet at Jones The Grocer.

  9. September 11, 2011 1:33 pm

    Oh Sally, that was certainly cheese heaven! Wish I were there.

  10. September 11, 2011 3:47 pm

    FABULOUS post and I DO love a good artisan cheese!

  11. September 11, 2011 8:59 pm

    Fantastic post Sally and thanks for the links. I don’t know how you managed to remember all those cheeses and producers so beautifully. I actually did try my hand at making ricotta a little while back, it was quite nice. However, I think our dairies pasteurise the milk at very high temperatures so it did not curdle as much as I would have liked. Certainly, something I too am very keen to try.

  12. September 11, 2011 9:14 pm

    Oh, no, you devilish girl, now because of you I’m craving for cheese!

  13. Anna permalink
    September 11, 2011 10:24 pm

    Mmmm, stilton with apricots, hand me a cocktail stick please…!

    • pete permalink
      September 11, 2011 11:53 pm

      errrr….. that’s not cheese !

      • September 12, 2011 7:02 am

        I’m with you on this Pete – it pushed the boundaries a bit!

  14. September 11, 2011 10:46 pm

    That’s a serious amount of cheese! I really must try and improve my cheese palate, I’m really quite boring and am most likely to go for Italian cheese, Gorgonzola etc. I do like to eat Welsh cheese when I’m in Wales and also a very local farm near to me produces some delicious Goat’s cheese. This post would be just perfect for The Foodie Bugle. You should send it in as an article. x

    • September 12, 2011 7:28 am

      There was some amazing farmhouse Gorwydd Caerphilly at the fair a few years ago which was nothing like the insipid chalky stuff I remember my Mum buying (it’s sold through Trethowans Dairy in Bristol). Thanks for prompt about The Foodie Bugle Ren.

  15. September 12, 2011 12:00 am

    Glorious post, Sally! We have nice local cheeses in Australia, but by law they all have to be made with pasteurised milk, which really cramps the cheesemakers’ style. As Sarah mentioned above, it was good to finally see the unpasteurised imports making a return to the Australian market!

    • September 12, 2011 7:07 am

      I seem to remember a Food Programme about a cheese champion who was trying to change this in Australia – I must try and remember his name. My husband loved the cheeses offered by the vineyards when he visited (during the last Rugby World Cup!)

  16. September 12, 2011 11:46 am

    this most is fantastic, more so because I have been to so many of the places, and tasted so many of the cheeses 🙂

    • September 12, 2011 2:04 pm

      Have you Tandy? Now I want to know the whys and the wherefores. Do tell,

  17. September 13, 2011 1:58 am

    Well researched and informative post Sally! I am also looking to make some cheese soon (nothing fancy that needs rennet though).

    • September 13, 2011 10:25 am

      Can’t wait to see what you get up to Kari.

  18. September 13, 2011 6:53 pm

    Cheese, glorious cheese! Such a yummy post, Sally. I too, have a package of vegetarian rennet on hand…for that rainy day that I get to play in the kitchen with raw milk. Just met an artisan-cheesemaker in training last week, and nearly wept with joy and jealousy for her job. ha! ha! Raw milk cheeses are now available here in the USA, but I believe they still have to be aged for a period of time (so annoying, if you ask me). One of my absolute favorite things about living in Munich was the mountains of raw cheese from neighboring countries (and Germany too) that were so accessible. *sigh* That said, one of my all-time favorite blues is Point Reyes Farmstead Blue ( and a favorite goat’s milk is Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove (, both from California. Then– Boulder, Colorado’s Haystack Mountain has amazing cheeses and one of my absolute favorites (again, goat) is their Haystack Peak cheese which is incredibly ripe and runny and perfect in every way ( Okay, okay… off to go eat some cheese now.

    • September 14, 2011 11:27 pm

      I love all these links – thanks so much for sharing them Stephanie. I want to return to Munich and the wonderful viktualienmarkt to try them.

  19. September 14, 2011 10:00 pm

    Fantastic post Sally. I’m gutted though that I didn’t go and didn’t even know about it. Here’s you managing it from Dubai and I who only live down the road (more or less) have never been. The cheese shop I do know, it’s my favourite which we always visit when we go to Tavi. So pleased you covered the raw milk issue – we are passionate about raw milk and generally try to buy cheese made from it. Also heard the Food Programme coverage of Patrick Rance which was really interesting. CT and I went on a cheese making course a few years ago and we had lots of good intentions, but all we’ve actually made are fresh cheeses – hey ho, one day!

    • September 14, 2011 11:25 pm

      I’ll have to meet you there next year 🙂 I’ve often thought that Country Cheeses could do a lot more to publicise their fantastic range and this wonderful fair so just goes to show I might be right. Very envious of the cheese making course.

  20. September 18, 2011 10:49 am

    I loved this post! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Dubai should have a cheese festival for the cheese addicts among us.

  21. September 23, 2011 2:51 pm

    A great fair! What a wonderful event. *drool*



  22. January 19, 2014 4:28 pm

    How did I mis this post? I do need to visit, you told me about this festival on instagram last summer but I think I will plan a trip for it this year!

    • January 19, 2014 4:32 pm

      Tavistock is a lovely market town and the Cheese Festival is an annual highlight. I think you’d love it 🙂


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