In their latest celebration of the people, places and products of the West Country, ‘Deepest’ book authors Fanny Charles and Gay Pirrie-Weir explore why Somerset is so different from its neighboring counties.
What makes Somerset so special? The answer, as Arthur Fallowfield would have said, lies in the soil. Trampled and worked by generations of people and their animals, what is arguably England’s most fashionable county now produces some of our most exciting dishes, from legendary cider and traditional cheddar cheese to yoghurt, charcuterie, oysters and even salty granola.
The food community was one of the most compelling aspects of our home country when we started our third book “Deepest”, Deepest Somerset. Following in the footsteps of the success of Deepest Dorset (2016) and Deepest Wiltshire (2019), Deepest Somerset again sets out to capture the roots of the unique county, neighbor to others, but different in many ways. Sales of all three books benefit local charities and each is based on ceremonial county boundaries, before unitary authorities were dreamed up and outlines changed to fit electoral patterns.
Our Somerset encompasses Bath and parts of Bristol. It is home to Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, now Europe’s largest construction site, Glastonbury Festival at Michael Eavis’ Pilton family farm, Cheddar Gorge, Henry the Smiling Hoover and, increasingly, personalities from the world of finance, show business, politics and the media. , nestled alongside the well-hidden landed nobility.
The introduction to Deepest Somersetwritten by the Prince of Wales, emphasizes the importance of ‘farming’ – the two parts of the word: ‘We inhabit the landscape which sustains us and the culture which derives from maintaining its rhythms and its natural cycle. »
12 best things to see, do, eat and drink in Somerset
- Burrow Hill Cidera traditional cider house in Kingsbury Episcopi (01460 240782; www.somerset ciderbrandy.com)
- Coates Willow and Wetlands Center in Stoke St Gregory, near Taunton (01823 490249; www.coatesenglishwillow.co.uk)
- East QuayWatchet Center for Contemporary Arts, opening in 2021 (01984 263103; www.eastquaywatchet.co.uk)
- The 625 year old man George Inn at Norton St Philip, near Bath, which has a colorful past featuring the Mon-mouth Rebellion and Judge Jeffreys – butcombe.com/the-george-inn-somerset
- Gorge Granolawhose offerings include salted fennel and Aleppo peppercorn granola, at North Cadbury – gorgescooks.com
- Ossipa farm-to-table gem restaurant with a Michelin star in trendy Bruton — osiprestaurant.com
- Porlock Oysters – harvested from the beach on the shores around Porlock Weir, then delivered, fresh as a daisy, to your door – porlockbayoysters.co.uk
- Red Barn Farm Shop at Hinton Farm, Mudford, near Yeovil, for asparagus — redbarnfarmshop.co.uk
- renegade monkartisan beer-washed cheese from a farm near Temple-combe — feutrehamsfarm.com
- Wells Cathedral — don’t miss the moat of the Bishop’s Palace, the chained library and the magnificent scissor arches — wellscathedral.org.uk
- Worleys Special Reserve Cider — chosen to launch Deepest Somerset — from the Mendip Hills — www.worleyscider.co.uk
- White Row Farm Shop at White Row Farm, Beckington, for vegetables, such as petit posy, also known as kalettes — whiterowfarm.co.uk
Somerset is where the English folk revival took root, planted by song collector Cecil Sharp, who heard a gardener sing The seeds of love in an orchard when he visited his friend the vicar of Hambridge in 1903.
Whatever changes the 21st century brings, Somerset retains its distinctive charms, often just yards from the main roads that run through the south and west. Hamstone postcard cottages can stand side by side with hidden rural poverty. The constant threat of flooding – who can forget the 2014 footage of Matilda Temperley? — hangs over the inhabitants of the Levels. Our latest book aims to provide insight into the county, but, of course, the first taste comes from the food and drink it produces.
Somerset firm cheddar is one of the best cheeses in the world. Enthusiasts have their favorites – 16-based Keen’sand Moorhayes Farm, near Wincanton, and Montgomery’s of North Cadbury are the best-known makers of traditional unpasteurized cheddar. The Barber family have been making cheese in Ditcheat since the 1830s, but Westcombe and Tom Calver’s Pitchfork are examples of more recent iterations, made by the Trethowan brothers, who brought their famous Gorwydd Caerphilly to Somerset when they moved here from Wales.
Historically, the wives of farmers were the cheese makers – George Keen’s son James is the fifth generation, carrying on a tradition started by George Ginny’s great-aunt in 1899. Each generation has mastered the ancient alchemical process of “Cheddaring ” – the conversion of curds and whey into solid cheeses, which are then wrapped in cloth and matured for up to 20 months. The Keens have a state-of-the-art on-demand milking system. Like Calver, Montgomery and the Trethowans, they use raw milk. “Because it’s unpasteurized, it has a lot more flavor,” says Keen.
Somerset’s dairy industry ranges from Yeo Valley Organic, run by Tim Mead on the North Somerset family farm and now the UK’s largest organic brand, to the rich Guernsey milk and cream from Hurdlebrook Farm in Babcary. Roger Longman produces award-winning White Lake cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses at Bagborough Farm.
If cow’s milk is the rich food that runs through Somerset’s veins, apple trees are its backbone. Apples are central to the county’s traditional culture – ancient wassail ceremonies continue, invoking a bountiful harvest of cider. Wassail, the Somerset theater company, creates plays inspired by local life, including cider and folk tales.
In a hotly contested area, Somerset’s claim to be the home of cider is stronger than most. Good producers include Hecks at Street, Rich’s near Highbridge, Worleys near Shepton Mallet and Burrow Hill in Kingsbury Episcopi, where Julian Temperley not only produces good cider but also Somerset Cider Brandy. Mr. Temperley waged a long and ultimately successful battle against bureaucracy and the pride of Calvados producers in being able to call his product “cider brandy”. Now his photographer daughter Matilda runs the business.
The current cider revival follows decades of orchard neglect and destruction. Cider historian James Crowden describes the best craft ciders as “a rare taste for connoisseurs”, unlike “that stuff made from imported apple concentrate”, enthuses: “These are the high cider apple tannins that make cider what it is, a remarkably deep and complex drink that can mature for many years.
Mulberry founder, Somerset-born Roger Saul, now grows spelled and manufactures a range of cereal products from his home in Sharpham Park, a former deer park and home to the Abbots of Glastonbury. Inspired by the dietary needs of his late sister Rosemary, he researched spelled, emmer and small spelled and began to grow spelled. The Levels factory currently processes approximately 3,000 tonnes per year.
Andy Venn and James Simpson discovered a shared passion for curing meat and making salami when their daughters became friends at school. Over a pint of cider at a lawnmower race, they decided to make charcuterie that would become the first choice of British chefs. They opened Somerset Charcuterie in 2014, in Wrington, and now one of their most successful products is the very rare culatello, a premium air-dried pork made from the largest hind leg muscle of the Somerset pigs, judged the best charcuterie product at the British Good Food Awards in 2019.
All proceeds from the sale of ‘Deepest Somerset’ (£25) are donated to three local charities: the Farming Community Network in Somerset, Children’s Hospice South West (Somerset) and the Somerset Community Foundation. To order the book or for more information visit www.deepestbooks.co.uk