Foodie road trip in Somerset
A vibrant community of producers is making this corner of the South West a hotbed for wild beer, raw-milk cheese, natural sparkling wine, cider brandy and apple pulp sourdough
Looking for restaurants in Somerset? Want to know where to eat in Bruton? Travel writer Lucy Gillmore takes us on a foodie road trip through Somerset, stopping off at all-natural ice-cream producers, field to fork estates and biodynamic vineyards.
Tom Calver flings open the doors of the cellar, a chilly cathedral of cheese, and introduces me, with a grin, to 'Tina the Turner'. Tina is the robotic machine turning the mould-dappled wheels of Westcombe Cheddar as they mature. The cavernous 'cave' was constructed after a trip to France when Calver saw, first-hand, a different approach to affinage, the ageing process.
There's been cheesemaking on this family farm, Westcombe Dairy, hidden down a tangle of hedgerow-trimmed lanes in Somerset, for over a century. It all began in the 19th century when Edith Cannon created her legendary unpasteurised cheddar. Fast-forward through two world wars, the introduction of pasteurisation, the rise of the supermarket and demand for bland block cheddar, then press stop. This was when Tom's father, dairy farmer Richard Calver, jumped off the mass-market merry-go-round. Unearthing the old recipes, he steered the farm full circle.
His father might have turned back the clock – but it was Tom, a chef in London until his apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy, who threw them all out. “Cheesemaking shouldn’t be done by the clock, it needs to be intuitive. It’s all about slowing down the process. Over the past 50 years everything has been speeded up and you no longer get the breadth of flavour."
Mixing high-tech and old-school (his first cheese-smoker was an old phone booth), it's also a science. The cows bed down on sand topped with a dusting of straw for 'bacterial loading' of the udders - adding good bacteria to the raw milk. "We try to preserve the unique microbial make-up which gives the raw milk cheese its three dimensional character."
It all starts with the cows, grass-grazed Holstein Friesians, of course – and the 'cow man,' Nicholas Millard. "Finding a good cow man is hard; finding one who has studied pasture to flavour – well there's only one and we've got him!" When I visit, Nick is away at 'Cow Club' in the Auvergne with a batch of fellow dairy-nerds.
As well as cheddar the dairy makes Caerphilly and ricotta. And salami. This is a vibrant community of makers. The farm is also home to an artisan ice cream-maker and microbrewery – and an annual Beer and Cheese festival.
More like this
In the farm shop Tom hands me a slither of Caerphilly; it has a delicate yoghurty taste, the spoonful of ricotta a subtle sweetness. The cheddar is tangy and complex - you can almost peel back the layers of flavour. In a back room charcutier Paul is making salami, from Tamworth pigs reared, field-to-pork, in woodland around family-run Gothelney Farm near Bridgwater.
"We're thinking of experimenting with veal salami," Tom continues slicing meltingly good Saucisson Sec seasoned with garlic, pepper and nutmeg.
Wild Beer Co
The farm shop is also the Wild Beer company's single-tap taproom – you can fill up a growler to go. Founded by Andrew Cooper and Brett Ellis, the business is known for its sour and barrel-aged beers brewed with wild yeasts.
Brett was once a chef in California and uses his culinary expertise to create beers that can be paired with food – and blow your mind: 'Of the Sea' was inspired by lobster bisque - think aromas of shellfish and saffron. It's pure Willy Wonka - bonkers but brilliant. In the farm's old cheese store a ‘beer library’ contains beers aged in old bourbon, whisky, port and cider brandy casks. Jamaican rum barrels add a sweet richness, red wine barrels give a balsamic flavour.
This year they've been experimenting with fruit. Other brewers use purée, they use freshly picked. A kombucha-like bright pink sour beer 'Choked Up' is made with chokeberries from Norway and apples and foraged fruit from Somerset. It's barrel-aged, with jammy redcurrants and cranberry aromas, tart to taste - and pairs well with partridge. 'Modus Operandi' was their first wild yeast beer. Aged in bourbon and red wine barrels and then blended, it's blood red, the flavour 'sour cherry dipped in toffee.'
At the back of the dairy, is sister company, Brickell’s where Rob Gore makes small batch, all-natural ice-cream. The signature flavour? Milk. "Instead of vanilla I wanted to celebrate the quality of the milk,' he explains.
It's all about collaboration. "I've just made a ricotta and dark chocolate chip ice cream." His Malted Millionaire, meanwhile, uses pre-fermented beer from the Wild Beer Co.
Somerset is where old ways marry new ideas and their love child is a precocious genius. It's a county of passionate producers and fired-up food innovators and draws like-minded individuals to its nurturing folds. People such as trailblazer, Catherine Butler, with her restaurant with rooms, artisan bakery and wine shop, At The Chapel in Bruton and Ben Crofton former director of Soho House who, with his wife, Vanessa and 2018 Great British Menu finalist, Dan Fletcher, is launching a restaurant, bakery and wine shop in Somerton this autumn, 28 Market Place.
Roth Bar & Grill
And Swiss art dealers Iwan and Manuela Wirth. Their ground-breaking contemporary art gallery, Hauser & Wirth, sits alongside Durslade, a rock ‘n’ roll farmhouse rental, and a restaurant, the Roth Bar & Grill, on a 1000-acre estate outside Bruton.
The estate is a field to fork producer in its own right, rearing Aberdeen Angus, Wagyu and Hereford cattle, Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, Lleyn sheep and even vines for their own wines, but the restaurant at its heart also champions local growers and producers. "We are the shop window for the people we work with, like Tom Calver," explains Operations Manager Jules Horrell.
We're chatting at the annual Hauser & Wirth Summer Party. There's porchetta sizzling on the grill, cured with sugar, bay and juniper and wood-roasted vegetables. Cooking with fire is what they do. "Why cook inside when you can do this?" Jules gestures to the flaming grill. Along with Thursday Feasts the restaurant recently launched Roth on the Road. "It's all about sharing the experience with people who want to know where their food comes from."
Round the corner Tom is dishing out brick-top Westcombe Cheddar toasties in the sun while people queue for a thirst-quenching Orchard Mist cider cocktail at the Temperley's brightly painted Somerset Cider bus.
Burrow Hill Farm
At the family's Burrow Hill farm, surrounded by 180 acres of orchards, they have been pressing cider for over 200 years. Julian Temperley, father of fashion designer Alice and photographer Matilda, not only makes cider, perry, Kingston Black aperitif and Pomona but is feted for his Somerset Cider Brandy.
Tours, tastings and orchard trails take visitors through trees laden with over 40 heritage cider apples, from Kingston Black to Yarlington Mill, grazed by Lleyn sheep. I jump into a dilapidated farm vehicle and we career up to the top of Burrow Hill for a spectacular 360-degree view of the county.
"The art of cider-making is in the blending, its inspiration is the art of winemaking." It's one the Temperleys have mastered, winning the national cider championships in Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire in the same year.
Back in the yard, Julian introduces me to to Fifi and Josephine, his old copper stills. "We are hillbilly cider makers - but we're also distillers,' he smiles handing me a glass of 20-year old, treacle-laced fire among the barrels. He jokes, "this is either the crown jewels of the cider industry or what cider makers do when they grow up."
Matilda Temperley is now working with her father – and has recently launched her own creation, Somerset Shrubs a sophisticated non-alcoholic drink, made with cider vinegar, honey and fresh-pressed raspberries, that’s delicious with tonic.
Limeburn Hill Vineyard
There must be something in the water. Or soil. In 2015 in the Chew Valley, landscape architects Robin Snowdon and Georgina Harvey planted a four-acre south-facing slope on Westfield Farm with 1,800 varietals including Orion, Rondo, Regent, Solaris, Seyval Blanc and Pinot noir; biodynamic Limeburn Hill Vineyard was born.
Joining Robin for a tour and tasting, we chat about their path. “We don’t come from a farming background, so it's been wonderful connecting with local growers." [Limeburn shares the land with the newly planted orchards of chefs-turned-growers Beccy and Sam Leach of Wilding Cider and there’s a community farm nearby].
Robin and Georgina don't clear the vegetation under the vines. "The more plants, the more biodiversity, the richer the soil,” Robin explains. "It feels like we're creating a place full of life - and the wine is just a bi-product."
We sit on straw bales in the sun, the air buzzing with insects, and three bottles (white, rose and red) of Pet Nat, the traditional artisanal method of making sparkling wine, as Robin uncorks the first bottle.
The white is lively, bone dry, bursting with apples and pears, while the rosé has a floral bouquet and heavenly strawberry and caramel notes. I eye the red nervously, bad memories of sparkling Shiraz flooding back. The bubbles are candyfloss pink, the wine deep and dark – but the flavour is not overcooked jam. Robin smiles at my confusion. "It's like tasting fruit fresh from the vine."
"We wanted to capture the joy of being in the vineyard and I think these do." I agree. It's wild and wonderful – and a world away from the most hyped opening in Somerset this summer, The Newt.
South African billionaire Koos Bekker and his wife Karen, the couple behind the much lauded Cape Dutch farmhouse-turned-boutique hotel Babylonstoren bought 17th-century Hadspen House estate in 2013. Here, at what was once the home of Arthur Hobhouse, founder of the national parks system, and garden designer, Penelope Hobhouse, they have planted orchards, restored the gardens and turned the Palladian mansion into a hotel.
There is passion here, too, with a starry team plucked from River Cottage, the Lost Gardens of Heligan and Noma. From the moment you arrive at the visitor reception, a soaring threshing barn, it has undeniable wow factor. Everything is exquisitely conceived from the carefully curated store showcasing local artisans' wares to the farm shop with meat from butcher Lloyd Tucker's parents' farm down the road. The shiny state-of-the-art cider-making facility sits next to an open-air cyder bar with a daily apple-pressing 'show.'
The Garden Café is a contemporary vision of glass and wood overlooking the kitchen garden where Charles Dowding's no-dig gardening methods are practised. Its seasonal menu has been designed as a gardeners notebook and head chef Alan Stewart not only makes sure that an element of each dish is from the garden but that its fruit and vegetables are the headline acts: think 'Gooseberry, pickled,' with brown and forest smoked mackerel, salad leaves from Tia's garden and 'Napoli carrots' braised and tossed with carrot top pesto. Even the bread and butter is on-message, the sourdough starter made from apple pulp from the cider press, the buffalo milk butter with preserved orange and thyme from the garden.
The Newt is an architectural and horticultural wonder, the gardens' star turn Penelope Hobhouse's famous parabola walled garden, planted with an apple maze of 460 trees. It might be the antithesis to the county's earthy bedrock, but there's no denying it's a glorious homage to Somerset's most famous asset: the apple.
HOW TO DO IT
Double rooms start from £125, b&b at At the Chapel (atthechapel.co.uk) and £300, b&b, at The Newt (thenewtinsomerset.com). Durslade Farmhouse sleeps 12 and is available to rent from £650 per night (dursladefarmhouse.co.uk). Follow Lucy on Instagram and Twitter @lucygillmore
Words by Lucy Gillmore