Anna Juhl, founder and tour host of Cheese Journeys, which creates food travel opportunities around artisan cheeses while promoting the awareness of producers, serves as the guide throughout our nine-day Cheddar expedition through some of England’s most beautiful countryside in Devon and Somerset.
Among our number, four are veterans of Cheese Journeys’ other itineraries to France, Switzerland and Italy. And we’re not all cheese heads, although one of us is a cheesemonger and another a cheesemaker. But six of us are just along for the ride.
The Journey Begins
It is 6 a.m. in London. Eight of us stumble from our hotel lobby to board our minibus for an early start on our trek west to English Cheddar-making country.
The day before, we’ve spent the morning at the Mother Ship for English cheeses, Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Borough Hall Market. The cheese-filled shop makes it clear that Neal’s Yard takes its mission to expand and protect England and Ireland’s storied cheesemakers very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that our next stop is at the aging and distribution center Neal’s Yard Dairy recently built. The 39-year-old company has been a godsend to small artisanal cheesemakers, as Neal’s Yard often buys their cheese and ages it.
We returned to Borough Market for an extensive cheese, ale and wine tasting that night. Here, we sampled some of England’s great cheeses—Stilton and its unpasteurized cousin Stichilton as well as cheeses from Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Leister. Then it was time to visit the cheesemakers themselves, more specifically, some world-renowned Cheddar makers.
Steeped in Tradition
We head to our first stop: Quicke’s Farm, established in 1540. The same family has farmed this land for 14 generations; it is now in the hands of Mary Quicke who welcomes us to her 3,000-acre establishment. We arrive late, but are just in time to see the last of the day’s curds being formed into giant rounds. The Quicke’s cheese we sample today will never be exactly duplicated. That’s the beauty of homemade Cheddar, Quicke tells us. The time of year the cow’s milk is produced and other natural variations determine its flavor. Quicke’s is looking for consistency—not in taste, but in quality.
The next two nights will be spent at the first of Cheese Journeys’ Manor Houses, Wolborough House. Juhl reserves the entire house and brings along two chefs, easy-going professionals named Sylvain Jamois and Musa Francis, whose kitchen doors are always open. Guests at dinner include Quicke, her husband Tom and daughter Jane, and Tom Chatfield, who handles marketing. Jane is already involved in the family business, handling sales.
Juhl has unprecedented friendships and access to the people whose work we see along the way. We talk to them person-to-person, new friend to new friend.
A Vino Surprise
The next night, we visit with Mark and Debbie Sharpham, proprietors of not only a cheesemaking operation, but also one of the top wine-makers in England. To some of us, it’s quite a surprise to discover 11 different varieties of wine being made in southern England. Of particular note are Sharpham’s sparkling wines. With their light and fresh flavor, they’re made in the tradition of great Champagnes. And we are startled to hear that some major French vintners are buying up land in Southern England as a hedge against global warming. The Champagne region itself is becoming too hot for its Champagne grapes.
But back to the cheese. Sharpham is known for its soft cheese. Sharpham Brie was runner-up as Best Soft Cheese and People’s Choice at the Great British Cheese Awards in 2018. As we tour and taste the vineyard’s and cheesemaker’s output, we can’t help but be amazed at the sheer beauty of the place, the River Dart meandering through the property. It’s another gorgeous day, and lunch at Sharpham’s outdoor café is quite a treat both in scenery and in a meal featuring the Sharpham’s Ticklemore Cheese. A semi-hard, pasteurized goat’s milk cheese, it’s made with vegetable rennet. It’s moist and slightly crumbly. Is that a lemon flavor we taste? Its delightful name is a salute to the street in the nearby town of Totnes, on which the famed Country Cheeses shop makes its home. On our way back to Brixham, we stop for a look inside, inhaling the unmistakable aroma of great cheese.
The following day is one of options. To the pleasure of those of us who were ready to slow down, strolling the town of Brixham and stopping in a local pub for a pint was the order of the day. The rest of the group went off to a nearby food festival in Exeter and where visits to the local cathedral added another layer to Cheese Journeys’ promise of “Explore. Culture. Cheese”.
Smoking in Camelot
The next day, we were off through Somerset to Camelot. Quite literally, the village of North Cadbury is home to an archeological dig that is said to have been the original site of what came to be known as Camelot. Although its king was not called Arthur and its queen’s name is unknown, artifacts dating from Roman times suggest a royal home high atop a hill with views that rival any painting by John Constable. Our home for the rest of our trip is North Cadbury Court, the 1,500-acre family estate of the Montgomery Clan. It is home not only to this patrician family, but to arguably the most world famous of all Cheddars, Montgomery’s.
If your fantasies include stays at an English country house dating from the 1300s, you have arrived. Astonishingly you can still see traces of the medieval house in the roof trusses. Later, the front of the house took on an Elizabethan façade and even later than that, an entire Georgian façade was constructed on the south side of the house.
The Montgomerys are very much in evidence. Archie Montgomery and his wife Janet are as engaging a couple as can be because of, or despite, their listing in England’s social bible, Burke’s Landed Gentry. This generation of Montgomerys undertook a major renovation of the house and its 25 bedrooms. There’s even a modern indoor/outdoor swimming pool. The house is all ours. Archie guides us through the various periods of the house. There’s a full-on snooker (type of billiards) room, a roulette table in a lower level gaming room. You can even shoot golf balls off the roof, if you’re so inclined.
The Montgomery’s first made their Cheddar on the farm in 1910. That task now falls on the broad shoulders of Archie’s brother, Jamie. Using only unpasteurized milk from their herd of 200 Friesian cows, most Montgomery Cheddar is aged for 12 months in muslin cloth. Some is aged for 18 months to become Montgomery’s Extra Mature Cheddar, which delivers a nuttier, spicier, even peppery flavor than its younger sibling. Jamie also oak-smokes his smoked Cheddar for six hours, bringing an intense smokiness to the nutty flavor of the cheese.
Cows graze right up to the home’s Georgian Terrace. The cheese production is right down the lane. Jamie Montgomery is also our guide to Camelot, an archeological dig his late mother was very much involved in. In his battered Jeep, he leads us to the summit of the hill, pointing out where walls once protected a fortress and where Roman artifacts were unearthed in 1966 to 1970. There’s even a Montgomery cheese to commemorate one of its most precious finds, an ancient shield. This was unearthed by Jamie’s mother with a sieve. “Ogleshield” is a cow’s milk cheese great for cooking, and since it melts beautifully, it is featured at tonight’s dinner. A great substitute for Raclette, chefs Jamois and Francis put electric stovetops on the great dining table as we all indulge.
A More Modern Approach
We next visit Tom Calver’s Westcombe Dairy Farm, with its immense modern aging facility built right into a hillside. Calver, son of Westcombe’s owner Richard, is given credit for the quality of cheese Westcombe is now famous for. A trained chef and whispered to be one of Jamie Oliver’s best friends, Calver apprenticed at Neal’s Yard and then came back to Somerset, intent on perfecting his unpasteurized Cheddar. While he moved away from a mechanized dairy to have more contact with his cows, he has spectacularly modernized his aging process. We witness the mechanization of the back-breaking turning and cleaning of the cheese wheels. Westcombe’s is all done by the robotics of a machine Calver has nicknamed Tina Turner. Given the affinity the local pigs have for the whey Westcombe produces, it’s not a surprise to learn that one enterprising local is now making charcuterie for sale in the Farm’s store.
Just when you imagine there cannot possibly be another facet of this adventure, Mike Geno, an acclaimed cheese painter holds a class, and everyone paints.
One of our fellow Cheese Journeyers turns out to be a world-renowned expert on chocolate. She happily gives an impromptu lecture about it, complete with a tasting.
We visit a cider brandy maker, have a cooking demonstration with Chef Jamois and, to cap it all off, Juhl hosts a gathering of cheesemakers from all over England at the house. A spectacular display of cheeses from every one of her dinner guests is truly the capper on this extraordinary adventure. It’s a fantasy of ewe’s, cow’s and goat’s milk cheeses, irresistible even after our multiple days of cheese tasting. The dining room explodes with laughter and camaraderie. Chef Jamois’ dinner is superb, as has been every one of his meals—from full English breakfasts to buffet lunches to this final exquisite dinner.
With the morning comes our departure from North Cadbury Court. But the memories of this extraordinary trip keep coming back long after we’ve returned from what truly is a Cheddar Odyssey.
The 2019 Cheddar Odysseys are scheduled for April 1-5, 2019 and October 10-18, 2019 with an option of participating for just five days from October 14-18, 2019. To learn about all the Cheese Journeys, go to www.cheesejourneys.com.