‘Çwhat more do you need than a good cheese and a glass of cider?” I’m at Batch Farm in the village of Somerset in East Pennard, and cheesemaker Malcolm Dyer is happily packing up his tent. The farm is a highlight of the Somerset Food Trail, a 10-day celebration of the county’s smallest-scale food producers that runs through July 24. The trail aims to highlight the bounty of the area, offering visitors the chance to explore farms, meet growers, picnic at community farms and “food forests”, sip on cider while watching local bands, and generally drink, graze and shop. to the stomach contents.
Somerset is a surprisingly large county, so trail organizers have divided it into 11 areas. Setting out to experience the terrain ahead of time, I decide to focus on the stretch I know best – Bruton, Castle Cary and Wincanton – but explore it again on one of Bruton Bike Hire’s guided e-bike safaris. Ten of these tours will be held during the event, on two different routes, and I’m testing the northern circuit.
I meet my guide, Robin Balme, on Bruton’s High Street. This small town has made its way into heavy food circles in recent years with the opening of At the Chapel, Roth Bar & Grill, Matt’s Kitchen and Osip. Sustaining them, however, is a thriving farm-to-table scene, and – once Balme got me a bike, helmet, and high-visibility vest – the goal is to dive into it, fork-first.
Cycling north out of town, we start uphill – first to Coombe Hill, then to tunnel-like Snakelake Hill. As we go, we’re hit by bursts of late wild garlic, the flowers heated by shards of sunlight. We stopped at the top, at Crow’s Hill. Not to catch your breath; we’re on Bosch-powered Cube electric bikes, and as we navigated the steep climb, Balme tactfully suggested that I might want to hit the turbo (I did). It’s more because the view is too good to pass by: it descends over hedges and dimpled fields in Batcombe Vale.
From here, we cycle up and down to Westcombe, at one point squeezing between a bright red van and a cottage so bedecked with roses I wonder if we’ve tripped over a Postman Pat TV set. But while Somerset sometimes feels otherworldly in its pastoral beauty, its food producers, as in so many farming communities, face very real challenges linked to climate, loss of biodiversity, supply chains and the cost of living. In this context, events like the Somerset Food Trail are not only a delicious way to spend a weekend, but also a vital means of connecting consumers with local producers and producers.
One of them is Tom Calver of Westcombe Dairy. As he shows me the dairy’s high-tech cheese cellar, he tells me he’s increasingly looking at biodiversity in a holistic way, making connections from the soil microbiome up the food chain to the people who eat his cheese.
Westcombe is best known for its traditional farmhouse cheddar, although it makes eight types of cheese, and has also branched out into charcuterie and has a hand at Landrace Bakery, in nearby Bath, whose next step includes setting up a flour mill at The Farm. . With The Wild Beer Company and Brickell’s Ice Cream also based on the dairy’s premises, there is plenty of room for experimentation and collaboration; Brickell’s makes a stracciatella flavor using ricotta from Westcombe, for example. “We also started experimenting with agroforestry,” says Calver. “Moving from an intensive tillage system to the paddock meant we needed to create shade for the cows, so we planted fruit trees and bushes, picking fruit in the hopes that Rob at Brickell’s can use them in his ice cream.”
Filled with the joys of regenerative farming – and bites of Tom’s addictive, tangy cheddar – we continued cycling, past ancient orchards and enjoying the smell of sun-scorched hay. Diving into the East Pennard chocolate box, we arrive at Batch Farm.
Owner Jean Turner’s mother started making cheese here in 1963, and Turner is still turning 27kg cheeses at age 69. Walking through the cheese cave, surrounded by rows of marbled, cloth-bound cheddars, I smell a distinct smell of ripening cheese, and an understanding of the care that goes into the process. After the tour, Malcolm Dyer hands me a chunk of 16-month-old traditional mature cheddar, rich and nutty. I nod in appreciation, and Turner approves (it’s her favorite).
In a previous life, Balme worked as an electrical engineer in Glastonbury, and we gossiped about the festival as we cycled down the old Roman Fosse Way to Wraxall Vineyard, founded in 1974. Owners, Lexa Hunt and David Bailey (not that one), bought it. 18 months ago, transforming it from a sleepy English vineyard into something that wouldn’t look out of place in Napa. In addition to the vineyards themselves (which the couple are remodeling with the help of specialist winegrowers), the plans include cellar door sales, workshops, tours, parties and stays in the vineyards. The centerpiece is a stunning glass-walled event space with an extraordinary view over a vine-covered hillside to what appears to be the Somerset Levels but is actually the misty north part of Dorset.
“The Newt’s archaeologist [a nearby garden and hotel that’s opening a reconstructed Roman villa this summer] is an expert on English vineyards planted by the Romans and believes this was one of them,” says Hunt. It’s not hard to conjure up a bacchanalian vision of 2,000-odd years ago as we sample a trio of wines – a sparkling white, a raspberry-nosed pinot noir rosé and a fruity baco.
On bike tours, hungry cyclists will stop here for a wine tasting and Somerset Lunch – a feast that includes sausage rolls, charcuterie, salads from Pinsents deli in Castle Cary and White Lake goat cheese. Today, though, we’re cycling to glasses of Harry’s Corker cider at the nearby Alhampton Inn and what Balme calls his “emergency farmer” — a feast of Westcombe cheddar, homemade bread and pickles tucked away in his saddlebag that Batch’s Malcolm Dyer Farm, certainly approval of.
From here, it’s a gentle 20-minute cycle back to Bruton and the end of my magical buffet tour. Or almost. The next day I come back on my own to visit some more producers. In Galhampton, I meet farmer Tia Cusden at the Wild Garden, a bucolic organic garden where trail visitors can picnic by the lake and smell a beautiful patchwork of green leaves and edible flowers. Then there’s the Somerset Spirit Company just outside Castle Cary, where entrepreneur Anthony Gaster’s vodka latte, gin latte and “wheysky” are made with Wyke Farms residual whey and sell out almost as fast as they can. he succeeds (he is currently working on a cave-aged version of whey cheese).
My final stop is the Chapel Cross Tea Room in South Cadbury. Run by Rose Adams, it comprises a pocket art space, a circus-style outdoor cafe and a small herd of Golden Guernsey goats. Last winter, Adams built her one-woman dairy from the ground up, milking the goats just once a day, in a horse milking parlor, so the children can stay with their mothers. The two resulting cheeses (a nutty semi-hard and a wonderfully sticky soft) are delicious. Yet another gastronomic success story from Somerset.
The Somerset Food Trail runs from 15th to 24th of July. Food Trail e-bike guided safaris are £100pp, all inclusive, or from £30 for half a day for e-bike rental alone. Operators from other regions of Somerset are also running bike tours along the trail.