Town Mill Cheesemonger is best in the west

FOOD awards proliferate, from broadcast media to local newspapers, but there are a handful that represent the zenith for food businesses, food and drink producers, restaurants, pubs, growers and retailers. They include the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme awards, the Guild of Fine Food’s Great Taste Awards, run from the Guild’s HQ in Gillingham, and the Observer Food Magazine’s annual awards, now in their 10th year.

The OFM awards, which are made on the basis of reader nominations, are among the most prestigious, and coming top in a region is a huge achievement.

Justin Tunstall of the Town Mill Cheesemonger at Lyme Regis has won the Best Independent Retailer in the west in the OFM awards, announced in the Observer Food Magazine’s October edition.

In a hugely competitive category, covering a region which could reasonably claim to have the finest food and drink in the country, this is a great win for a small shop tucked away from the busy High Street and sea-front.

Justin, an extrovert bearded character who would not look out of place cruising along the main drag in Key West in the nightly Harley Davidson motorcycle parade, had a varied career before settling in West Dorset.

Over the years he worked in the music business, and for newspapers in the USA, including some time in Los Angeles, and back in Britain for various papers including the Mirror, for the BBC and for the Spectator magazine.

Several years ago, travelling up and down to Dorset to visit his mother, who had breast cancer, he began to question what he was doing with his life and “where did I want to be?”

His wife Katie was a physiotherapist, who could work away from London, but Justin wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

He knew he didn’t want to work in local media or newspapers, so he decided to go into retail.

He thought about doing a coffee shop, or opening a chocolatier’s, or combining the two in what he dubbed a “Moccary” – and then someone said: “Why don’t you open a cheese shop?”

He thought it was an interesting idea, but although he liked cheese he did not consider himself to be knowledgeable or a connoisseur.

He found the shop at Town Mill, a historic group of buildings including a cafe and art gallery in the centre of Lyme Regis, by the river Lym. It was not, he says, somewhere he could have run either the coffee or chocolate businesses.

He decided to find out more about cheese, and was lucky enough to have a half-day (which turned into more like a whole day) with Julie Harbutt, the cheese expert and founder of the British Cheese Awards. They really hit it off and after courses both with Juliet and with Bob Farrand, the founder of the World Cheese Awards and the Guild of Fine Food, he was ready to launch himself as the Town Mill Cheesemonger, nearly five years ago.

Since then, Justin has put his shop on the nationwide foodie map, racking up a string of awards, including New Cheese Retailer of the year in 2009, repeated gold awards from Taste of the West and Taste of Dorset Best Independent Food Shop in 2012.

The shop has everything going for it – it is in the historic heart of one of the country’s prettiest seaside towns, in a picturesque building, has friendly and knowledgeable staff and, most importantly, has wonderful cheese.

Justin specialises in West Country cheeses – these days there are enough good regional cheeses to stock a larger shop than Town Mill – as well as other fine cheeses. Of course, tasting is allowed – how else will you know you might like that goats cheese you have never tried? But Justin does discourage what he calls “brie-prodders” – the people who think you can tell if a brie is ready to eat by feeling it and prod their (quite possibly sticky) fingers into a cheese, thus rendering it unsaleable to anyone else.

With its location by the river and the old mill buildings, Town Mill Cheesemonger is at the heart of a tourist magnet, but the downside is that the business inevitably suffers fluctuating demand. At the peak of the holiday season, you can hardly move around the shop’s entrance, where tourists queue up for delicious Mendip Moments ice-cream as well as cheese. In the winter, it can be very very quiet.

But whatever time of year you visit, you are assured of good service and excellent cheese, always – “Fromage to Eternity,” as the shop’s slogan says.