A Cheddar Odyssey: Exploring Somerset, London, and Devon
When Americans travel to Europe in search of great food culture, they usually head to France, Italy, or Spain. As a cheese lover, I have always had a soft spot for England – it’s the birthplace of cheddar. And who doesn’t love a proper cheddar? The depth of flavor and the toothsome crumb of a world-class cheddar, like Montgomery’s, is unsurpassed.
As fate would have it, a personal connection to the Montgomery family in Somerset yielded an invitation to visit their estate–an invitation from none other than cheesemaker Jamie Montgomery himself.
When you meet THE James Montgomery, he appears rumpled—he’s a tall, broad-shouldered man with an easy smile who will talk with you for hours before he notices hay on his sweater. Despite his many trophies and his sterling reputation, he’s a humble man who would never let on that he’s the one responsible for transforming his family’s village cheddar-making operation into an award-winning juggernaut. Or that he was raised in a Downton Abbey-like manor where his mother kept pedigreed Jerseys on the lawn. You can still see the cows from the windows of the ballroom!
The first time Jamie and I hung out at the manor, I told him how unbelievably honored I would be if Cheese Journeys could build a tour to showcase his life’s work. Jamie paused, offered a puzzled but polite smile, and said, “Anna, we are who we are and we do what we do. If you find it interesting, we’re so happy to host you.”
After several years of bringing awestruck guests to visit him, Jamie told me, “I have to apologize to you for something I said years ago. I realize we do have something special here and it’s OK to admit it.” Then he added sheepishly, “I’m just glad you find it worthy to share with your American cheddar lovers.”
When we arrive to make Montgomery’s cheddar, the building is unmarked and not much larger than a cottage. Jamie invites us in to get “kitted up” with hair nets and boot covers, then leads us on a tour of his modest “cheese room” where things are still done simply and by hand. You won’t even see a laptop; Jamie still uses a pencil to enter the details of each cheese made into his ledger.
Across the street, North Cadbury Court, his family home, becomes our home base. Not far off, the family’s main pastureland is none other than the original site of Camelot. Strolling past Montgomery’s herd, which grazes contentedly on this legendary ground, is one of the tour’s quiet highlights. The place feels mythical. It’s easy to see why Montgomery’s Cheddar tastes otherworldly. (click on image for link)
No trip to England is complete without exploring Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of Europe’s most inspiring retailers and aging caves. We spend an afternoon at their headquarters, sniffing our way through tunnels, and continuing to learn about them throughout the tour. That’s because Neal’s Yard supports cheesemakers throughout the British Isles with expert mentorship. If you’re in business, you’ll be fascinated to peer into this innovative company and learn more about how they practice stewardship.
Leaving London, we wind our way down the coast to Devon, the “bread basket” of England. There, we reside in a gorgeous house in Brixham that overlooks the harbor and spend a few days living like locals. That means drinking Plymouth gin ’n’ tonic from nearby Plymouth Distillery and eating plenty of fresh fish, expertly prepared by Chef Sylvain Jamois. We even spend a morning down at the docks with the fishermen, watching the live seafood auction as chefs and vendors vie for the best catch. Afterwards, we warm up with plenty of hot tea served with heavenly Devon cream.
Learning about cheddar and southern England’s famous “cheddar families” like the Montgomery, Quickes and Westcombe legends, is fascinating, but we taste other cheeses as well. At Hill Farm in Somerset, we meet Will Atkinson, a young goat cheese maker who represents a new generation of English dairying. He shows us around his beautifully designed modern facility, then leads us into his farmhouse kitchen for a pot of tea and nip of something from his liquor cabinet. Then we venture off to meet Stacey Hedges at Hampshire Cheese. Stacey’s an Australian who has mastered a style of Camembert that is “plum delicious,” as the Brits like to say. Obsessed with Camembert-style cheese (smell and all), Tunworth is my go-to favorite: It’s gooey and great to eat with jam.
We leave England with a multifaceted impression of the British culture. The producers we meet are modest, understated, and committed to the common good of their entire community. Spend a little time with them, and you’ll come away inspired to share not just British cheeses but also a whole new ethos.