In this, the first of a four piece look at Dorset cheese, I visit the famous Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival.
After a summer calendar packed full of food festivals, the Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival was going to have to be something pretty special to catch my attention. The premise was certainly there, over 60 food stalls, more than 20 cheese exhibitors and much more besides –my interest was sufficiently piqued to draw me out beyond the bounds of the west of the county. The festival is a 2 day event, now in its’ 16th year, born out of the rich cheese making heritage of the town. Though the creamery is now gone the festival continues, growing each year, last year attracting over 15,000 visitors during the course of the weekend. The weather was favourable, a fine weekend of September sun. On the Sunday when I visited throngs of people crowded the tents; I am told that Saturday was significantly busier still. Alongside the food stalls, there were numerous crafts people, a children’s marquee, real ale tent and a full programme of live music. It’s a real community event with the Rotary Club, Scouts, Lions and the Masons all contributing.
Of course for me, the food marquees were the real draw. One stall creating a buzz was Sherborne based Windyridge Cheese, creators of “innovative British cheese”, an intriguing selection of flavoured, predominantly cheddar cheeses. With unusual flavours such as chip shop curry, farmhouse cider and apple and sundried tomato and spring onion, they fit well with the current trend for flavoured cheeses. While perhaps falling short of the artisan label, they are a fantastic example of affordable local produce which compares favourably with the supermarkets on price. Their dartboard selection, an array of 8 flavoured cheeses for just £10, recently won “best presented cheese” at the Frome Cheese Show.
Another flavoured cheese which caught my eye was a Cornish gouda with fenugreek from Worthy Cheddar, not a flavour I’ve come across in cheese before but an excellent product with a creamy texture and well balanced warmth.
The Cheesebomb from Lancashire cheesemakers Shorrocks was another novel product, a 3 year matured Lancashire Cheese full bodied and creamy, encased in white wax with a sprinkling of gold and a length of “fuse”, as impressive to look at as to taste.
Of course, as a local food advocate, it was the Dorset cheeses that I was really here for. All the premier Dorset cheese producers were in evidence, Ford Farm, Dorset Blue Vinney, Chalke Valley Cheese, Woolsery and James’ Cheese. It was the perfect opportunity to talk with the passionate individuals who create these products and to sample their wares. In particular I talked at length, with the ladies at Chalke Valley and James McCall of his eponymous company.
James McCall is an affineur, a specialist in ageing cheeses. His cheeses are produced by Lyburn Cheese and Chalke Valley Cheese before being washed and aged in his maturing room at Child Okeford. James produces three washed rind cheeses Francis, Burwood Bole and Little Colonel, alongside a small selection of flavoured cow’s milk cheeses.
Chalke Valley Cheese produce five fine cheeses with milk from a single herd of dairy cows at Cranborne. A gouda style cheese – Tilly Whim, a Caerphilly – Tregonwell, Old Harry – a cheddar and two soft cheeses Dorset White and Cranborne. It was fascinating to note the differences between Chalke Valley’s Dorset White and James’ Burwood Bole. They are essentially the same cheese but through the washed rind process James’ version is transformed, with a more complex flavour and significantly firmer texture.
I will be investigating each of the Dorset cheese producers in greater lengths over the coming weeks, including compiling a comprehensive list of Dorset cheesemakers.
So much more than ‘just another food festival’, The Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival is a 2 day extravaganza of local food, artistry and entertainment talent to which I will without doubt, be returning.