Why you should put Cheese Journeys’ Cheddar Odyssey on your bucket list for 2019
By Monte Matthews
For more information on the next Cheddar Odyssey scheduled for April 1 to 5th 2019, October 10 to 18th 2019, and October 14th to 18th 2019, click here!
As Food, Wine, and Travel Writer and Curator here at HipSilver, I travel a lot. And I admit most of the time I am thoroughly in awe of what I experience. But I have to say in all my travels, nothing is quite as unique as what I experienced when I joined Anna Juhl’s Cheddar Odyssey in Britain this Spring. It’s a visual banquet in an exquisite part of the world. And it’s so much more. The people you meet along the way you’d likely never meet any other way. You’ll be on a first-name basis with artisans who make not just cheese, but wine and charcuterie, brandies and gin. You’ll see historic monuments. You’ll overnight in a home that featured prominently in World War II history. Then you’ll stay in a stately home whose owners have not only opened their doors, they dine with you and share the history of their home. You’ll even be able to say you’ve been to Camelot. The people you travel with will be life-long learners who’ll become fast friends. I’ve put together a Trip Diary so you can get all the details you need before booking this wonderful adventure which currently has two dates in 2019. (Add dates link here)
It is 6 a.m. in London. Eight of us, 4 from the East Coast, 4 from the West, board a minibus for an early start on our trek west—to the heart of English Cheddar Making country.
The day before, we’ve spent the morning at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Borough Hall Market. Thirty-nine years ago, Neal’s Yard came into being with an ambitious goal: To expand and protect England’s and Ireland’s storied Artisinal Cheesemakers. And they’ve been a godsend ever since. Neal’s Yard often buys cheese from the country’s artisans and ages it for them, giving them a revenue stream in good times and bad. We’d toured their new aging and distribution center from which they send their cheesemakers wares all over the world. Then we’d returned to Borough Market for an extensive cheese, ale and wine tasting that night. We’d sampled some of England’s great cheeses—Stilton and its unpasteurized cousin Stichilton and cheeses from Lancashire, Lincolnshire and Leister. Now we’re about to visit the Cheesemakers themselves, more specifically, some world-renowned Cheddar cheese makers. Cheese Journeys’ Anna Juhl at the lead, and we’re off on our journey through some of England’s most beautiful countryside in Devon and Somerset.
Must you love Cheese to take this trip? Yes, but don’t let that stop you from the delights of a Cheese Journey. I travelled with four repeat passengers of Cheese Journeys’ other itineraries—to France, Switzerland and Italy. We’re not all “cheese heads” although one of us is a cheese monger and another a cheesemaker. But 6 of us are along for the ride, cheese lovers of course, but we’re hardly prepared for what lies ahead—a glorious introduction to the glories of England, its manor houses, its landscape, history and people and, of course, its cheese.
Our first surprise comes mid-morning. Traffic slows and suddenly, unannounced, there’s Stonehenge itself etched against a clear blue sky. From the van, we get as good a look as anyone can since Stonehenge is now blocked off from pedestrians who threatened to overwhelm the monument. This is the first of this trip’s many surprises unannounced in Anna’s extensive itineraries. We drive on, headed to our first stop.
Quicke’s Farm was established in 1540 in the time of Henry VII. It’s been in the hands of the same family ever since. Fourteen generations on, it is now in the hands of Mary Quicke, a HipSilver herself if there ever was one. She welcomes us to her 3000-acre establishment. We’ve arrived just in time to see the last of the day’s curds being formed into giant rounds. We sample the nutty flavor of Mary Quicke’s homemade Cheddar, the taste of which varies depending on the time of year the cow’s milk is produced and other natural variations. But one thing is always the same. The quality of the cheese never varies.
We’re off to lunch at a local pub. From there, we head for Brixham, on the Bay of Tor, dubbed England’s Riviera. And we can see why. There are even Palm Trees in this temperate corner of England on the sea.
The next two nights will be spent at the first of Cheese Journeys’ Manor Houses, Wolborough House. Anna Juhl reserves the entire house, where we settle into our rooms. In advance, you’ll be able to request the one you’d like most. There are some stairs here but with luck some stalwart will help you if you need your luggage handled for you.
On our Cheddar Odyssey, Anna brings along two chefs. Remarkably talented, they prepare everything from full English breakfasts to Roast Suckling pig. And if you have any dietary restrictions, you’ll be asked about them when you make your reservations. The capable professionals in the kitchen will be happy to prepare meals around your particular desires and needs. The chefs’ kitchen doors are always open. You can always wander in for a soft drink or a cup of tea. The chefs capture the essence of our carefree group, fast friends who share stories at the first of our nightly gins and tonics. Guests at dinner include Mary Quicke, her husband, her daughter, Jane, and Marketing man Tom Chatfield. Jane is already involved in the family business in sales. The four of them represent the true difference between a Cheese Journey and any other Culinary tour I’ve ever taken. Anna Juhl has an incredible knack for engaging the people whose work we see along the way. We talk to them person-to-person, new friend to new friend.
The next night, we visit with Mark and Debbie Sharpham, proprietors of not only a Cheesemaking operation but also one of England’s top wine-makers. To some of us, it’s quite a surprise to discover 11 different varieties of wine being made here on the banks of the River Dart. As we walk through the vineyards, our Sommelier Tom carries chilled bottles of wine for our tasting. A particular favorite is Sharpham’s Sparkling Wine. To me it rivalled a good Prosecco with a light, fresh flavor. This is a lovely walk - not at all strenuous and there are even some benches along the way to sit and admire the view. The Sharpham’s gardens were said to have been designed by Capability Brown, most famous for the garden at Hampton Court.
But back to the cheese: Sharpham is known for its soft cheese. Sharpham Brie was runner-up as Best Soft Cheese and People’s Choice at the Great British Cheese Awards earlier this year. It’s another gorgeous day and lunch at Sharpham’s outdoor café is quite a treat both in scenery and in a meal featuring the Sharpham’s Ticklemore Cheese. Its delightful name is a salute to a street in the nearby town of Totnes, home to the famed Country Cheeses shop. On our way back to Brixham, we stop for a look inside, inhaling the unmistakable aroma of great cheese.
Another wonderful feature of Cheese Journeys is the ability to not participate in the regularly scheduled program. If you so wish, you can take a day off to read or relax or just meander around the town stopping in a local pub for a pint. While the rest of the group goes off to nearby Exeter where there was a food festival going on, you can plan your own day around what interests you most. Perhaps a visit to Exeter Cathedral to add another layer to Cheese Journeys’ promise of “Explore. Culture. Cheese”.
The next day we were off through Somerset to Camelot. Our next stop, the village of North Cadbury, is home to an archeological dig that is believed to be Camelot. Although its King was not named Arthur and his Queen’s name is unknown, artifacts dating from Roman times suggest a royal home high atop a hill. Get out your camera, the views from up here would inspire the paintings of John Constable. But I’m getting ahead of myself. After a pub lunch at the aptly named, Camelot, we first see our home for the rest of our trip. And what a home it is! North Cadbury Court is the 1500-acre family estate of the Montgomery Clan. It is home not only to this patrician family but to perhaps the most famous of all Cheddars, Montgomery’s.
If your bucket list includes stays at an English country house dating from the 1300s, you can tick it right off your list. The magnificent manor has modernized plumbing, an indoor swimming pool, a complete billiards room, and an elevator. This is a particular advantage in getting your luggage up to and down from your room. There’s plenty of room to stretch out in the 25-bedroom house. We are the sole visitors so there’s plenty of choices in which room you’d like to call your own. All the rooms are stunning, filled with family artifacts, portraits and traces of the Medieval house in the roof trusses. Later, the front of the house took on an Elizabethan façade and even later than that, an entire Georgian façade was constructed on the south side of the house.
The Montgomerys themselves are very much in evidence. Archie Montgomery and his wife Janet are an engaging a couple. They could not be more gracious hosts. In the library, I quickly found their listing in England’s social register, Burke’s Landed Gentry. This is the generation of Montgomerys who undertook the renovation of the house. Archie guides us through the various periods of the house. There’s a full-on snooker room, a roulette table in a lower level gaming room. You can even shoot golf balls off the roof if you’re so inclined. That first night, when the sun was just about to set, an amazing site appeared. Archie has a Hot-Air balloon which we felt very privileged to be invited aboard. That is those of us who were not scared silly of the whole notion of riding in Balloon.
The Montgomery’s bought North Cadbury Manor in 1910 and immediately began making Cheddar. That task is now in the capable hands of Archie’s brother, Jamie. Montgomery’s uses only unpasteurized milk from their herd of 200 Friesian cows. These cows graze right up to the Georgian Terrace of the house. The Cheese Production is right down the lane. And we even witnessed the birth of a calf on a visit to the milking station. Jamie Montgomery is also our guide to Camelot, the archeological dig. In his battered Jeep, he leads us to the summit of the hill, pointing out where walls once protected a fortress. Unearthed between 1966 and 1970, there’s a Montgomery Cheese to commemorate one of its most precious finds. Apparently, Jamie and Archie’s mother, Mrs. Montgomery fetched a sieve from the farm and helped unearth an ancient shield. “Ogleshield” is a cow’s milk cheese great for cooking and since it melts beautifully, it is featured at tonight’s dinner. Think of it as a great substitute for Raclette, which is exactly how the chefs used it as the focus of an Ogleshield supper.
Tom Calver is the next cheesemaker we meet. Several years ago, Tom abandoned his career as one of London’s up-and-coming chefs and came home to his father Richard’s Westcombe Dairy Farm. Tom is given credit for the quality of cheese Westcombe is now famous for. Said to a great pal of Jamie Oliver of Naked Chef fame, Tom apprenticed at Neal’s Yard before coming back to Somerset, to perfect his unpasteurized Cheddar. We sample Westcombe at a lunch in a room over Tom’s spectacular new aging facility. Tom’s mother has laid out as beautiful a Ploughman’s lunch as can be imagined. Given the affinity the local pigs have for the whey Westcombe produces, it’s not a surprise be served Charcuterie and Gammon (Ham) all locally produced.
You may have thought that there was practically nothing we hadn’t done but hold onto your hat. Or your paintbrush. Philadelphia’s own Mike Geno, an acclaimed Cheese Painter, yes, Painter of Cheese, holds a class back at North Cadbury Court. Even the most uninitiated painters participate in an afternoon of painting ‘live cheese’ and the results are astonishingly good. And can you think of a more appropriate souvenir?
There’s actually more… One of our fellow travelers is a world-renowned authority on Chocolate. She gives an impromptu talk including a tasting. We visit a Cider Brandy maker, have a complete cooking demonstration by one of our chefs. To cap off this truly extraordinary journey, Anna Juhl hosts a gathering of cheese makers from all over England. There’s a spectacular array of cheeses—ewe’s milk, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, irresistible even after days of cheese tastings. The glorious dining room rings with laughter and camaraderie. Can you imagine not enjoying every moment of this amazing Odyssey? I’d highly recommend making reservations as soon as you can.
The next Cheddar Odyssey is scheduled for April 1 to 5th 2019 and October 10 to 18th 2019 with an option of participating for just 5 days from October 14th to 18th 2019. For more information about all the Cheese Journeys, click here!