Cheese Connoisseur is a magazine devoted to Cheese and a must for anyone who loves what Merriam-Webster defines as “a food consisting of the coagulated, compressed, and usually ripened curd of milk separated from the whey.” But the dictionary can’t do justice to the glory that is Cheese. Cheese Connoisseur does. Its pages are filled with stories about the people, the places and the goodness of cheese. If you love cheese, you’ll love Cheese Connoisseur and you can and should subscribe to their on-line email here: https://www.cheeseconnoisseur.com/contact/
You can imagine how thrilled I was when my story was picked up by this Bible of Cheese. “Cheddar Odyssey” is the brainchild of one Anna Juhl who founded Cheese Journeys, an amazing array of cheese tours that take travelers on fantastic trips to France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Italy. And of course, to Cheddar Country, that swath of England in Somerset and Devon where the world’s finest Cheddar is made. You don’t have to be a cheese head to enjoy this cultural immersion into these beautiful counties. In our group there was a well-known California Cheesemonger and his wife who is on Instagram as Cheesemonger’s Wife, and a cheesemaker from Philadelphia. The rest of us were just along for the ride. And what a ride it was. So with thanks to Cheese Connoisseur, here’s the story of one of the most wonderful trips I’ve ever taken. And at the bottom of the piece, some very great news for anyone who wants to head off on this year’s Cheddar Odyssey…a limited time offer of a substantial discount! Finally, I’ve attached links to two recipes that were a direct result of my wonderful Cheese Journey–fulfilling the promise of bringing back great things to cook on every trip we take.
Cheese Travel by Monte Mathews
There’s something for everyone on
Cheese Journeys’ Cheddar Odyssey
The Journey Begins
It is 6 a.m. in London. Eight of us, 4 from the East Coast, 4 from the West, stumble from our Hotel Lobby to board our minibus for an early start on our trek west—to the heart of 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’s and Ireland’s storied Cheesemakers very seriously. So seriously that our next stop is at the aging and distribution center they’ve recently built. The thirty-nine-year-old company has been a godsend to small artisanal cheesemakers. Neal’s Yard often buys cheese from them and ages it for them, giving the artisans a revenue stream in good times and bad. We’d returned to Borough Market for an extensive cheese, ale and wine tasting that night. We’d sampled some of England’s great cheeses—Stilton and its unpasteurized cousin Stichilton and cheeses from Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Leister.
Now we’re about to visit the Cheesemakers themselves, more specifically, some world-renowned Cheddar cheese makers. Cheese Journeys’ Anna Juhl will be our guide, social director and all-round mother hen throughout our 9-day journey 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 cheese monger and another a cheesemaker. But 6 of us are along for the ride, cheese lovers of course, and we are hardly prepared for what lies ahead–a glorious introduction to the glories of England, its manor houses, its landscape, history and, of course, it’s cheese.
It’s a beautiful weekend so the roads are full of cars heading out of London. Traffic slows and suddenly, unannounced, there’s Stonehenge itself etched against a clear blue sky. From the van, we get as good a look as anyone can since Stonehenge is now blocked off from pedestrians who were threatening to overwhelm the mysterious monument. Stonehenge is the first of this trip’s many surprises unannounced in Anna’s extensive itineraries.
Steeped in Tradition
We drive on, headed to our first stop: Quicke’s Farm established 1540. The same family have farmed this land since that time. Fourteen generations on, it is now in the hands of Mary Quicke, an extraordinarily charming woman who welcomes us to her 3000-acre establishment. We arrive late– 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, Mary Quicke tells us. The time of year the cow’s milk is produced, and other natural variations determine its flavor. Quicke’s, Mary says, is looking for consistency—not in taste but in quality. A look at the cows, and then we’re off to lunch at a local pub.
Back on the bus we head for Brixham, on the Bay of Tor, dubbed England’s Riviera. And we can see why. There are even Palm Trees to be oohed and awed over for those of us who didn’t realize how temperate this part of England is. The next two nights will be spent at the first of Cheese Journeys’ Manor Houses, Wolborough House. Anna Juhl reserves the entire house, where we settle in to rooms, most with water views. Anna brings along two chefs, easy-going professionals named Sylvain Jamois and Musa Francis whose kitchen doors are always open. They capture the essence of our carefree group, fast friends who share stories at the first of our nightly gins and tonics. Guests at dinner include Mary Quicke, her husband, and her daughter, Jane, and Marketing man Tom Chatfield. Jane is already involved in the family business in sales. The four of them represent the true difference between a Cheese Journey and any other Culinary tour you may have taken. Anna 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.
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 earlier this year. As we tour and taste the vineyard’s and cheesemaker’s output, we can’t help but being 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 nearby Exeter where there was a food festival going on and where visits to the local Cathedral added another layer to Cheese Journeys’ promise of “Explore. Culture. Cheese”.
Day four 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 became 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 1500-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 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 entertainment may even include a Hot-Air Balloon ride in Archie’s balloon for those game enough to try it, weather permitting of course. Ours was perfect.
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 Georgian Terrace of the house. 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. Apparently Mrs. Montgomery fetched a sieve from the farm and helped unearth an ancient shield. “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 in our cheese-focused supper.
A More Modern Approach
We next visit Tom Calver’s Westcombe Dairy Farm with its immense modern aging facility built right into a hillside. Tom, 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, Tom 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 Tom 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, yes, Painter of Cheese, 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 and 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, Anna Juhl hosts a gathering of cheesemakers from all over England at the house.
A spectacular display of cheeses from every one of Anna’s dinner guests is truly the capper on this extraordinary adventure. It’s a fantasy of ewe’s milk, cow’s milk, goat 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. Many of us stay up far too late.
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 next Cheddar Odyssey is scheduled for April 1 to 5 th 2019 and October 10 to 18 th 2019 with an option of participating for just 5 days from October 14 th to 18 th 2019. For a very short time, the first of these tours are offered at a discount too significant to mention here. There’s also a brand new Cheese Journey to Holland at Tulip Time. To learn about all the Cheese Journeys and to receive your discount, go to www.cheesejourneys.com
Here are two links to two wonderful recipe discoveries I made on my Cheddar Odyssey: