Sunday, May 24, 2009

Cheddar, Cider, Circles, and a Cathedral

“Go on. Giver her a bit. She’s got to learn to like Cheddar. She’s from Somerset.”

The woman working at the Saturday market in Wells, England's smallest cathedral city, obliged. She speared a small cube of cheese with a toothpick and gave it to the father who was holding his young blond-haired daughter, probably three of four years old, in his arms.

The girl didn’t do Somerset proud, as her father had hoped. She grimaced and then rubbed her head into her father’s shoulder.

“Ah! See, she doesn’t like it,” smiled the woman behind her covered stall.

The father looked as his daughter, who had lifted her head up and was eyeing the pies and sponge cakes next to the different types of Cheddar at the stall.

“Ah. That’s all right. She’ll learn.”

Cheddar may be the world’s most popular cheese type, but it is essentially the cheese of Somerset. Before being produced all around the globe, Cheddar was made only on small farms in the southwest of England. It is in this county where Cheddar got its name. There’s a small but very touristy village in Somerset called Cheddar. For centuries people have gone on holiday there, not to eat the cheese but to explore the area’s dramatic limestone gorge and caves. The theory is that people would visit the village, eat the local hard cheese after a strenuous hike in the gorge, and then return home, telling people that they had eaten some delicious cheese while in Cheddar. The regional cheese got associated with the specific location.

A Great Cheddar Adventure, such as the one that I’m on, necessitated a pilgrimage to Cheddar Gorge. After spending a week at the three uber-traditional dairies that make Cheddar in Somerset (Westcombe, Keen’s, and Montgomery’s) and days on the Internet at my mother’s cousin’s place in Bath, I took myself off to Wells (probably to my cousin’s great relief!) to meet my friend Stony Grunow, who, like me, grew up in New Jersey with an English mum and has now moved to London.

In one day, driving around in a car that Stony rented in London (despite a driving lesson, I am still too nervous to drive in the U.K.), we “did” quintessential Somerset. We hiked the rim of Cheddar Gorge in the spring sunshine (but didn’t go into the caves; we were unwilling to pay 16 pounds sterling and we were put off by how touristy and tacky the village was), ate Cheddar made in Cheddar (though it wasn’t particularly good), drank real cider (a drink specially linked with Somerset) at a ramshackle but very popular cider mill, and explored two stone circles (see photo above) in the glow of the early evening sun. Back in Wells, we raced off to a pub before it stopped serving meals at 9 p.m. and then walked around the medieval cathedral, spectacularly illuminated at night.

There you have it--Cheddar, cider, (stone) circles, and a cathedral--the enduring tastes and history of Somerset.

For pictures and more descriptions of the village of Cheddar and the cider mill (and the problem we had with the rental car), visit Stony’s Web site.

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