I have already written about Wiltshire, where I was brought
up, and Dorset, where I now live, but another county very dear to
my heart is Somerset. My fathers family all came from the
area around Frome, quite close to the border with Wiltshire. My
grandmother was a champion cheesemaker and I still have some of
the prizes she won at Frome Cheese Show. Farmhouse cheese-making
was hard and lengthy work. It must have been back-aching stirring
the milk by hand, breaking up the curds, pouring them into moulds
and then lifting and turning the huge round cheeses as they
matured. Occasionally, quite by accident, a cheese would turn
blue so that it tasted something like a Blue Cheshire. When this
happened it was highly prized and was kept for family enjoyment.
Another reason for my attachment to Somerset is that I spent
three very happy years as a student at Bath. This beautiful city
was part of the historic county of Somerset, then in 1974 was
included in the new County of Avon and is now a separate
authority. It has been in existence since before Roman times,
although the Romans were the first people to make it an important
centre because they recognised the healing powers of its hot
springs, hence they called it Aqua Sulis. It reached the
height of its fame in the eighteenth century when it became the
most fashionable resort in the country. Today it is
Britains only World Heritage Site and attracts tourists
from all corners of the Earth. Because of its importance to the
most fashionable in the land and because it was visited by people
who took "the cure" by drinking the mineral waters it
developed dishes peculiar to itself and is thought by some people
to have more specialities than any other English city except
London. People visiting the spa were advised to eat simply in an
effort to overcome the effects of gross over-eating and drinking
which was commonplace in the eighteenth century. Dr Oliver,
founder of the Mineral Water Hospital invented a biscuit in 1750
that was named after him - the Bath Oliver. This is a dry biscuit
or cracker made from flour, butter, yeast and milk. It is pricked
all over with a fork before baking and has an imprint of the
doctors face in the centre. Sadly only one firm makes them
now but they are obtainable in Bath and in other parts of the
country too. They are every good eaten with cheese, especially
the local Cheddar.
If you visit Bath then one of the things you must do is go to
the Pump Room and listen to the trio playing while you have
morning coffee and eat a Bath Bun. This
is another dish attributed to Dr Oliver and is made from a rich
yeast dough coloured with saffron. Unlike many other buns they do
not contain currants inside but a few are sprinkled on the sticky
top together with crushed lump sugar.
Another dough mixture, which originated in Bath, is the Sally Lunn Cake.
There is still a shop believed to be the home of the original
eighteenth century Sally Lunn who invented these rich dough cakes
baked in rings. Though little is known about her some people
believe that there really was a person called by that name. In
her book, Sweet Sally Lunn, Pamela Oldfield suggests that
she was a French Hugenot who escaped persecution to come and live
in Bath and that the cakes she made had their origin in French
brioches. Another theory is that as this lady called out her
wares she shouted in West Country French "Solet Lune"
which would be a good description of a cake with a round, flat
moon-like top and a sunny golden-yellow centre. You can still buy
Sally Luns and the best way to eat them is while they are hot,
split open and filled with thick cream or butter.
I have already mentioned Bath Chaps in a previous article.
They are the pigs cheek or lower jaw, salted and smoked
like bacon, then boiled and coated with golden breadcrumbs, like
ham, and eaten cold. Originally they were made from Gloucester
Old Spot pigs because they have a very long jaw. A modern version
of the Bath Chap can still be bought from butchers in the area.
Pigs have always thrived where there are apples. In the autumn
they used to be turned out in the orchards to clear up the
windfalls. And Somerset has always had plenty of apples. The
climate and soil are ideal for their cultivation and it has been
a centre for cider making for hundreds of years. Cider making was
introduced from France in the twelfth century, firstly to Kent
and Sussex but quickly spreading to the West Country. Early cider
was made from wild crabapples and was sweetened with honey and
flavoured with spices. Then in the seventeenth century Viscount
Scudamore started experimenting to find a good cider apple in his
orchards in Herefordshire and produced the Scudamores Arab.
At one time there were dozens of varieties of cider apple with
delightful names like Slack-My-Girdle and
Foxwhelp although now the old, large trees have been
replaced by smaller bushes which are easier to manage and pick.
Cider was traditionally made by crushing the apples with a stone
wheel harnessed to a horse; the resulting pulp was placed between
mats to make a cheese and pressed. The drained off
juice is then left to ferment. Of course today most cider is
produced in factories but there is still some farmhouse cider,
known as scrumpy, made. The word cider comes from the
Latin sicera meaning strong drink and scrumpy
is certainly that. It is powerful stuff. The word scrumpy is
derived from the dialect word scrump, meaning a small or
withered apple and it is also the source of the verb scrump,
meaning to steal apples. Cider is still so important
in the West Country that Wassailing ceremonies continue to take
place in villages such as Carhampton in January when the orchard
is toasted to ensure a good crop
Pork and apple go together and so do pork and cider. A
casserole made with cider gives a pleasing contrast to the
richness of the pork and also helps to tenderise the meat. It is
very good with more tasteless meat like turkey. Turkey fillets
braised in cider and raisins makes a very good dish and cider
does wonders for chicken and fish.
Dairy cattle thrive in the West Country and as well as cheese
their milk is skimmed for cream and used to make all sorts of
dishes. An elegant eighteenth century Bath dish is a variation on
junket called Damask Cream.
Cream is cooked gently with mace and cinnamon until the flavour
is absorbed. It is then cooled and after rennet has been added is
left to set. Then lightly whipped cream flavoured with rosewater
and sweetened with icing sugar is poured over the top and the
whole dish is decorated with damask rose petals.
Cream added to that pork or turkey casserole I mentioned
earlier would give a luxurious, smooth taste.
And then, of course there is Cheddar Cheese. To be given this
name it had originally to be produced within thirty miles of
Wells Cathedral. By the eighteenth century it was becoming highly
prized and being imitated by inferior products so stringent
specifications were laid down. It takes a gallon of milk to
produce a pound of cheese. The largest Cheddar cheese ever made
weighed eleven-hundredweight and was given to Queen Victoria by
the farmers of Pennard as a wedding present in 1840. In 1939
there were over five hundred recognised Cheddar cheesemakers, now
there are only a few farms that still make it, but when you try a
well-matured farm-house cheese, kept perhaps for up to fifteen
months, it is delicious. The process of making it has been
carried all over the world and we now have it made as far away as
Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It is an excellent cheese to
eat with bread and pickle or a salad and is good for slicing and
grating to use for cooking.
Frome Cheese Show still takes place towards the end of
September and while it is more like a more general agricultural
show these days there is still a cheese section where the best
makers compete for coveted awards.
Rich pastures, fertile soil, a gentle climate and a coastline
providing the riches of the sea, Somerset has it all.