The south-west’s answer to the Grand Canyon welcomes visitors from far and wide, looking to sample the produce that has spread the village’s name across the world. But I want to know if Cheddar is still the capital of traditional British cheese?
Once you have parked in Cheddar’s main car park, you are immersed in a brightly coloured, old-fashioned world. Like a seaside town with caves and cliffs instead of a beach, there’s plenty vying for your attention here. Simply follow the row of tearooms and shops selling cute curios, sweets and traditional fare as it snakes its way into the impressive gorge.
Amazingly, cheddar is still made here. Stop at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company to watch it being made by hand. Keen to keep traditional methods alive, the makers explain the process and how they replicate the original cave conditions to keep the truckles cool. Watch the curds being separated from the whey on an updated scale, among the antique churns and paddles that line the walls. Finish with a tasting session, savouring the rich, creamy flavours of traditional and cave-matured cheddar.
Further down the road, I’m drawn into the Cheddar Sweet Kitchen, enticed by the smell of caramelised sugar wafting through the air. Catch a demonstration by the sweet maker, Somerset’s answer to Willy Wonka. A rainbow-coloured lava-like concoction is poured on to a metal surface and is then fed through a 1940s mould – and out pops what will be sold as little fizzy fish. Other brass moulds sit in the shop next to the glass jars brimming with rhubarb and custards, peanut brittle and sherbet lemons among other sweet shop favourites, all made on site.
Despite the exterior, the caves (once used to store cheese) have an unsullied beauty and are well worth a visit. If it’s not raining, head further up the hill to take in the incredible views of the dramatic gorge. During the Ice Ages, meltwater floods cut through the rocks, leaving steep grassy slopes perfect for scrambling up. Keep an eye out for peregrine falcons in the skies above. If you really fancy working up an appetite, there are cliff-top and gorge walks and abseiling and climbing opportunities.
But, I discovered that the real heart of Cheddar cheese lies further down the road. Across Somerset there is a whole host of top quality food producers. Montgomery’s in North Cadbury and Keen’s, near Wincanton, make Cheddar cheese using traditional methods and with unpasteurised milk from the farms’ own herds. The cheeses are wrapped in muslin cloth and left to mature on wooden shelves for up to 18 months.
But in Cheddar itself, the proud heritage of local food and drink shines through, perhaps lovingly wrapped in a sweet gingham muslin or with chocolate box ribbons to enhance it for the visitors, but ever-present nonetheless. The real heart of traditional Cheddar cheese-making may have moved slightly further afield, but Cheddar will always be celebrated as the home of the world’s favourite cheese.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Bristol, take the A38 towards Axbridge, then take the A371, following signs
for Cheddar. Regular buses run from Bristol and
FIND OUT MORE
Derrick’s Tea Rooms
Cheddar Gorge BS27 3QE
Church Street, Cheddar BS27 3RA
Friendly and cosy hotel serving local food.
Explore the Bishop’s Palace and cathedral in this small Somerset city.