A little piece of cheese heaven – Tavistock Real Cheese Fair
Plunging 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.
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.
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.
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).
Nowhere 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.
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
Replete, 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!
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…
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.