The world's your oyster. Now perhaps the next best thing to a taste of Somerset in the West Country itself but without the hassle of a 120-mile drive down the road from London, could well prove to be a trip to Yeo Valley’s café in Queensway in west London. And, so with this in mind I trotted off to what was touted as the "first-ever" Somerset and Exmoor food and drink experience in the capital last week. Producers from the county were there aplenty.
The event, which showcased award-winning cave-aged cheddar, world famous Thatcher’s cider, unique artisan cocktails and oysters amongst other delights, was created by Visit Somerset & Exmoor in partnership with Yeo Valley and its owner - plus Mulberry founder - near Kensington Gardens.
Hosted by some the region’s best and brightest foodie stars, Channel 4’s celeb chef Josh Eggleton, known for his recent show ‘The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes’, was on hand to explain and serve food and drink pairings from the 'land of summer people', so it is said. It was a great opportunity to immerse oneself in the West Country spirit and get a taste of what the county, which borders Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon, has to offer.
A rural county of rolling hills, the Blackdown Hills, Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park, Somerset derives its name from the Old English - Sumorsǣte - first used in 845 (after the region came under Saxon control) and is said to mean “the people living at or dependent upon Sumortūn", i.e. the modern town of Somerton. The region is home to three areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), has Exmoor National Park straddling it and home to some of the darkiest skies in the country (having 'Dark Sky' status no less), as well as over 60 miles of coastline.
While the origin of Somerton itself is unknown, it may mean or refer to ‘The sea-lake enclosure’ or possibly ‘summer farmstead’. These days Somerset attracts around 25 million visitors (2018 figure) and the monetary injection into the county’s economy is put at £1.3 billion (c.$1.7bn) per annum.
John Turner, CEO of Visit Somerset (www.visitsomerset.co.uk), opened proceedings from behind the kitchen counter at the Yeo Valley cafe. He said: "Somerset is where two of perhaps the most famous and iconic food brands were created - cheddar cheese and cider. The county is to home Thatchers cider, which was established in 1904, in addition to Yeo Valley and Sharpen Park. I think we have something very very unique that we should all be incredibly proud of. There is a wonderful array of culinary delights on offer, not to mention Michelin chefs who represent the county."
He said: “We are really seeking define the county and tell the story it has to offer. And, this is a chance for us to promote top local, artisanal and organic produce.”
On the evening guests were served oysters from Porlock Bay and pumpkin soup - paired with wines (Oatley Vineyard, Wellhayes), beer (Exmoor Ales, Butcombe) and cider (from Thatchers, Brothers Brewing and Sheppy's Cider). Launched at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995, Brothers Cider was one of the first cider brands to launch in the UK. And, in 2020 it will celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Indeed, the ancient county that is around two hours from London offers a huge natural expanse of historic countryside, coast, gardens and architecture with cities like Bath and Wells. The farmland across Somerset consists of some of the best grass and fruit growing conditions in the world plus a respected and thriving dairy produce sector.
For good measure Emma Thomasson from Visit Exmoor (www.visit-exmoor.co.uk) was on hand too in London. From towering cliffs and rocky beaches to soft heather-clad hills, green valleys and crystal-clear rivers and streams, there is certainly a welter of stunning views to admire in this region.
Now mention ‘Somerset’ and most folk think Cheddar cheese. And, you would be right - the world’s oldest surviving producers of it are based in the county. To go with that, there is excellent cider - Thatcher’s - down at Myrtle Farm, Brothers Cider in Shepton Mallet (see: www.thatcherscider.co.uk). The first recorded mention of cider presses as a source of income in this part of the world dates from 1230 when a Royal Charter was granted to the Bishop of Bath (although it is known the Romans grew apples in Britain).
There is even a Thatchers orchard exhibition with 458 rare varieties located at Sandford that have been preserved over the past twenty years by third-generation cider maker, John Thatcher. We ate and imbibed on these products on the night - as well as more beside. It was shame I had go early and over to The City for another event in stock exchange land.
Other treats afforded to foodies and journalists like myself were Pacific grown oysters from Exmoor - harvested from Porlock Weir’s historic harbour, a tradition that goes back a hundred years; strawberries from Cheddar itself; wild trout from the Quantocks; and, charcuterie from Somerset Charcuterie (see: www.somersetcharcuterie.com), which embaces traditional Italian and Spanish methods and combines them with the flavours and rich food culture of the west country. Their range of sixteen core products include Somerset cider chorizo, red wine and Draycott blue salami, air dried duck breast, sage mustard and cider salami plus a multi-award winning Culatello.
Porlock Bay Oysters (www.porlockbayoysters.co.uk) is an independent oyster farm situated effectively where Exmoor meets the sea and where the tradition of oyster farming goes back over 100 years. Their oysters begin life at a nursery site in Bantham prior to being hand-selected and transferred to the site at Porlock Bay to be grown to maturity. The taste is crisp that is aided by superb sea water, which produces an artisanal oyster. Perhaps unsurprisingly the firm has gained national and international recognition for the high-quality and unique flavour.
The renowned Somerset Toiletry Company (www.thesomersettoiletryco.co.uk), which has flourished into an international business with toiletries sold in over 50 countries and won a Queens Award for business among a number of awards for business and design, was there too. Known for its bath, body and home fragrance products, the company that is headquartered in Clutton, a farm estate in North Somerset (with an office in Florida, US), was founded by serial entrepreneur Roger and aromatherapy expert Sakina Buoy in 1999.
These entrepreneurs identified a gap in the market to produce beautiful and "honestly priced" luxury toiletries that are tested in-house and in a way that is against animal cruelty. Their most popular collections Naturally European, Delray Beach and Tropical Fruits - being completely paraben and SLS free.
Tim Mead, CEO of Yeo Valley (www.yeovalley.co.uk), a dairy company based in the village of Blagdon, said: "One message we would like people to take away is that with rotational-based grass farming - as was undertaken back in medieval times - we want to have sustainable agriculture and produce sustainable food. In Somerset - at the top of the Mendip Hills - we have fantastic rainfall and fantastic grass. And, with that grass that we grow we are able to make top quality dairy products."
Yeo Valley is also developing an organic garden, which at next year's Chelsea Flower Show will go display. Today they are the largest organic brand in the UK with some 2,000 acres of farmland and their own herd of British Fresian cows. According to The Grocer magazine Yeo Valley is the 55th largest UK grocery brand and the nation's 12th biggest selling online grocery brand, employing over 1,700 people in the south west.
Roger Saul, a British businessman and founder of the Mulberry fashion label in 1971, who runs an organic family farm, Sharpham Park (www.sharphampark.com), on the Somerset Levels near Glastonbury making products from home grown Spelt, a wheat alternative and truly wholegrain, commenting said: "Organic food is getting stronger and is likely to see a surge over the next three years. It is the only food that can ensure a healthy and good gut."
The firm, which is the champion of British Spelt and produces 500 tonnes of organic spelt a year and supplies the likes of Waitrose, Ocado and Whole Foods, is committed to bringing the best tasting and healthiest organic spelt in the UK. Spelt has a Glycemic Index of 54, which is low and means it produces only small fluctuations in our blood sugar levels. It can also reduce the risk of insulin resistance that can lead to diabetes.
But these are not the only treats to sample on a foodie tour of Somerset, which could also take in strawberries from Cheddar, trout from the Quantocks and naturally of course a Somerset cream tea. But perhaps go lightly on the latter.
For more information about what Somerset as a county has to offer as regards food, drink and produce see: www.visitsomerset.co.uk/things-to-do/food-drink-more