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 for the attack. I was at the Tavistock Real Cheese Faire and 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 but this has to be just about the most ideal in my book. Eat cheese, drink cider, talk to cheese makers, 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, in the Town Hall, 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 with branches in Totnes, Topsham and, of course, Tavistock in Devon – the cheeses they stock are all high quality, artisan-made and very local in origin. They even commission some exclusives, often getting involved with the cheese-maker in production, such as ‘Bliss’ made with Philip Rainbow in Somerset, and maturing them in their own ‘cheese cave’. You may be hearing more about them soon as I believe they are on TV this autumn with the River Cottage team.
The tasting experience starts 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 cheese covered trestle tables which line the room. You can choose from mountains of huge cheeses 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.
Britain nearly lost its cheese heritage as mass-production of cheap food after Woeld War II 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.
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, 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 fragrant and earthy character.
My family were more than ready for the cheese challenge and we 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 and sampled Curworthy’s Devon Smoake with approval. Cropwell Bishop has been making Stilton for three generations and their table 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.
I tried some Fuller’s beer-washed Baronet on a very attractive stall and 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’d really recommend the golden, ripe Baronet and suggest The Old Cheese Room is a name to watch.
Sharpham Wines and Cheese had an impressive array, the Coulommiers-style Sharpham cheese soft and melting ideally washed down with their Sharpham Sparkling Pink. Countryman‘s selection of local cider was also a great accompaniment to all our munching, and Waterhouse Fayre chutney and Jay’s Fruit pastes were the perfect foil for a variety of cheeses.
Devon Blue (cow’s milk) seduced me this year and I selected a wedge of this instead of my usual excellent Harbourne Blue (sheep’s milk), both made by Ticklemore near Totnes in Devon.
Entry to the Cheese Fair is free and you are not obliged to buy (only the wine, cider and chutneys are on sale) but 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.
We were replete as we wandered out into the sunshine in Bedford Square and round to the cheese shop; no lunch was necessary.
The Tavistock Real Cheese Fair can be found on the Country Cheeses website: http://www.countrycheeses.co.uk/about_countrycheeses/annual_cheese_fair.html