IN the middle of September we were at the 15th annual Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival, and as we sat on straw bales in the warm Indian summer sun, drinking perry, our shopping clustered round our feet, I realised how much things had changed since I first started writing about regional foods. It was a long time ago – almost 40 years – and often I would be talking to a curer of Suffolk hams, or a maker of a particular cheese which depended on the milk from a herd which grazed unsprayed pastures in Wensleydale, or Cheshire, or Devon. Time and again they would be wondering bleakly about the future; supermarkets were taking over the world and what they wanted was consistency. They didn’t want cheeses that were round, wrapped in muslin and needed rotating at regular intervals. They looked for cheeses that were square and fitted neatly on to the shelves of their cold stores, which were enveloped in wax at the moment the buyer felt the cheese to be what the customers wanted, thus arresting any further development. Hams cured in the old way were considered ‘too strong’ and it went against the grain to reconsider that – sons and daughters who might have carried on the family name, who might have reconsidered, went their separate ways, to pursue careers well away from the world of food and its problems.
As each year passes it seems there is an increasing number of young (and not so young) food makers who have bravely set out to create new products, or to work on the old ones so that they are better. In the bags at our feet we had amassed a range of products that ranged from Liberty Fields’ new Apple Aperitif (to add to their stunningly good apple balsamic vinegar) to an Italian salame from the Slow Food producers Bianca Mora. To partner that was Capreolus Foods’ guanciale, made nearby, that I had to buy in Italy before now.
And then there were the cheeses, some old favourites from nearby, some new acquaintances. Paul Thomas, of Thimble Cheesemakers, brought his lovely fresh Little Anne cows milk cheeses. He worked at Lyburn Cheeses, whose Old Winchester has won lots of fans and has now, with his partner Hannah Roche, branched out on his own. We admired Westcombe Cheddar’s stand, always a beautiful sight with its towers of cloth-wrapped truckles, and of course we bought one of their brick-toasted cheese and leek and ham sandwiches to eat with our perry.
Our friend from London was bowled over at seeing so many different cheeses, all made with the skill it requires to manage unpasteurised milk. Of course she was familiar with Borough Market, which offers global artisanal foods on a daily basis. What she enjoyed about this event was what she called its Somerset-ness. [Ed. note: Simone Sekers lives just over the border in Somerset – but of course Sturminster Newton is in Dorset!]
The cider, the cheeses, the breads and pies, mostly made within a radius of 50 miles. Driving the short distance back home she admired the ripening apples in the orchards, heralding new batches of cider, and the places we pointed out where such and such a cheese had been made.
The book I had placed on her bedside table was England in Particular, written by Sue Clifford and Angela King and published by Common Ground. Sue and Angela are now retired, and Common Ground’s archives stored safely at Exeter University, until such time as they need to be resurrected. In the meantime, it was Common Ground’s initiation of the now ubiquitous Apple Day, on 21st October, that made so many of us realise the importance of Place, of Local Distinctiveness. At shows like Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival, the sense of Place is everywhere, in the accents of local people, in the drink and food and customs and the crafts. And it isn’t a nod to the past, but to the continuance of such things and their place in the future. We drank a toast to this in Bridge Farm’s perry, from East Chinnock.
England in Particular is being edited into useful pocket editions – Journeys through England in Particular – On Foot, and Coasting, so far.
Apple Day at Quiet Corner Farm, Henstridge, is on Sunday 19th October.