U.S. Markets closed

Cheese, cider and ancient spelt: why Somerset provides the ultimate weekend for food fanatics

Emma Cooke
Exmoor park isn't just beautiful - it's delicious too - getty

“It was said that Elizabeth I would only ever drink cider - it was the English champagne,” says chief cidermaker and general apple whisperer Richard Johnson as we meander through an orchard, stopping here and there to bite into gleaming apples pulled off the nearby branches. “It was a refined drink, like a light wine. Really, if you make it well, cider is as diverse - and tasty - as wine.”

We’re in Somerset touring Thatchers’ Myrtle Farm, the first stop in a weekend line-up of food laden activities in the old county. This is England’s West Country, where quiet villages lie snugly tucked in amongst collages of fruit-dotted orchards. Cider is big business here, with the locals being just as obsessed with the crisp, bubbly liquid as you think they are. 

It’s not all about Somerset’s most famous booze though. Beyond cider’s tangy sharpness, there’s a wide-ranging array of treats to be fossicked out, from traditionally smoked meats to magical oysters that taste good even in the months that don’t end in ‘r’. 

Start in Weston-super-Mare and work your way outwards Credit: istock

Weston-super-Mare is the starting point of our mouth-watering search. As well as being a breezy two and a half hours from London, it’s close to the two behemoths of Somerset’s food industry: Thatchers and Yeo Valley. After a night in the seaside town, Exmoor National Park beckons, an expansive moorland speckled with copper and henna hues that lies largely in Somerset - locals don’t talk about the Devon tip taking up 29 per cent of the park. 

The journey from Weston-super-Mare can be made in an hour, with stop offs at Cheddar Gorge and Brown and Forrest Smokery to keep you stocked up on savoury bites along the way. Once in Exmoor, there’s fresh seafood and local venison to be tasted, adding textural delight to the blush-and-heather stoned beaches of Porlock and the cobbled market town of Dunster. 

Arthurian enthusiasts may come to Somerset in search of the Holy Grail - and festival goers may come for something rather less holy - but the best quest you can undertake on this ancient land is one of gluttony. Here’s how to indulge. 

Tiny Porlock Weir is a haven for seafood lovers Credit: istock
Where to taste and buy

Thatchers

As widespread across the UK as Thatchers cider may be, it’s never more delectable than in its ancestral home. This cider-making family - now in its fourth generation - are based in Sandford, where you’ll find the Thatchers farm (Myrtle Farm), an abundance of apple-scented orchards, and the Railway Inn, a tidy pub overflowing with classic (Haze, Gold), small batch (Cider Barn) and contemporary (Rosé) Thatchers offerings. A tour of the grounds will take you and your very own apple-whisperer-cum-tour-guide around the grounds and into the Exhibition Orchard, a living museum of 458 different apple varieties that include names like ‘Sheep’s Nose’ and ‘Slack Ma Girdle’. There, you can pluck purple and scarlet fruit off the trees to taste, before arriving back to the pub to drink their cider incarnations. 

Try: The Rosé Mojito, a new rum and cider cocktail on the Railway Inn’s menu that tastes like late summer sunshine. 

The Thatchers (thatcherscider.co.uk) tour costs £12 per person, lasts an hour and a half and must be booked in advance. Visit the website or contact tours@thatcherscider.co.uk for details. 

Cider farmers have to wait for the apples to fall from the tree Credit: istock

Yeo Valley

Continuing the theme of foodie family businesses in Somerset is Yeo Valley, owned by the future-minded Meads. This is the biggest organic brand in Britain and there’s a cornucopia of dairy treats on offer that include milk, butter, ice-cream and, of course, tart, creamy yogurt. While the company may seem huge on the outside, inside the flower-dotted fields and vibrantly-decorated company building it’s surprisingly quaint. The herd of British Friesian cows can be met (and named, if you so wish), there’s a garden to stroll, and the airy canteen that started out serving lunches for staff got so good, it’s now a visitor attraction in itself with chef and ‘food ambassador’ Paul Collins doing cookery demonstrations when he’s not creating seasonal recipes. 

Try this: Trout is pulled fresh from the nearby river to be cured and used in a sensational Eggs Royale - if you’re lucky enough to find it as a special when you arrive, snap it up. 

A Demi Demo Day at Yeo Valley (yeovalley.co.uk) costs £59, and runs from 21 Jan to Nov 17 on Tuesdays. Includes cookery demonstrations, breakfast with coffee, and lunch. A Farm to Fridge Day costs £65, and runs from 28 April to 6 Oct on Tuesdays. Includes a farm tour, meeting with the cows and meals.

Yeo Valley is as good for brunch as it is for breakfast Credit: Yeo Valley

The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company

There is only one producer of cheddar in Cheddar, the village that gave its name to the beloved English cheese. Which is surprising, given that the land surrounding the village has been at the centre of England's dairy industry since the 15th century. Cheddar Gorge, a limestone ravine, tends to be the main attraction of the area with its cream-and-moss coloured views and traces of our prehistoric forebears, but some of the best flavours in the area lie in Cheddar with artisanal cheese producers, the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. 

As well as the wordy name, there’s plenty of traditional cloth-bound cheese to get your lips around at this independent cheesemaker. A viewing gallery gives an insight into the cheesemaking techniques used, but the real joy is in the shop, where you can taste your way through all the different cheddar maturities, as well as piquant morsels laced with cider or a ‘good slosh of port’. 

Try: Cave Matured Cheddar combines the salty sharpness of the company’s Mature and Vintage cheeses with a noticeably creamy roundness. 

Entrance to the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company viewing gallery costs £2. The Taster Bar is free to enjoy. More information at cheddaronline.co.uk.

Cheddar Gorge: a great spot for a cheese picnic Credit: getty

Sharpham Park

Think of Somerset’s food offerings and most minds will jump to cheese and cider, which is no bad thing: both are deliciously abundant around these parts. A lesser-known regional delight, however, is spelt. Sharpham Park, a local mixed-economy organic farm, is the largest producer of organic spelt in the UK. Owner, Roger Saul - the founder of Mulberry - discovered that spelt had been grown in the area since the Bronze and Iron Ages and decided to bring it back to the British consciousness, something he’s been roundly successful in. Not one to rest on their spelt laurels, the farm also produces walnuts, venison, garlic and apple juice - all grown or reared lovingly on the 300 acre land that sits in the shadow of Glastonbury Tor. 

Try this: Pumpkin spelt risotto at the Sharpham Pantry Restaurant is a rich, warming treat when the temperatures drop. 

Sharpham Park produce can be tried in the Sharpham Pantry Restaurant, which features a menu of both the farm’s organic offerings and ingredients local to the South-West. Dishes on the lunch menu start from £5.85.

Brown and Forrest Smokery

This family-run smokery started in 1982, after the owners learnt how to smoke eel in Germany and took the technique back with them to Somerset. Now, they specialise in small-scale batches of a variety of smokeable goods, from glistening salmon to earthy lamb and even local cheddar. Using only a simple wood-fired system, fish and meat are lovingly cured then either hot or cold smoked by hand in a few tiny rooms, which guests can tour, emerging dazedly into the sunlight afterwards in a wood-fire-scented haze. 

The attached restaurant dishes out the end results direct from the smoker, baked into quiches and pies or served simply as they come. Flavour experimentation comes with the territory - a recent collaboration with the Oxford Kitchen saw the creation of a sweetly rich Bristol milk stout and treacle cure. 

Try this: Still made the way it was 37 years ago, Brown and Forrest’s eel is delicately flavoured with beech and applewood smoke, maintaining its status as the must-try menu item. 

Smokery tours are free, though it’s worth checking (brownandforrest.co.uk) for specific open days where visitors are given a complimentary glass of wine to sip on. Mains in the restaurant cost £9.95.

Smoked duck is a lesser-known Somerset delicacy Credit: Brown and Forrest

Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Set among a scenic 180 acres of apple orchards lies the somerset Cider Brandy Company, who have been distilling cider in the area for over 200 years. A more recent addition is the cider brandy, which current owner Julian Temperley led the revival of in the ‘80s, eventually securing the UK’s first ever cider-distilling licence in 1989, and an appellation contrôlée for the boozy apple nectar thereafter. 

The cider brandy art-form may be relatively recent in the public conscious, but the first written records of cider brandy in England go back to 1678. Transformed from clear cider eau de vie into brandy by an oak barrel maturation process that lasts from three to 20 years, the liquid is ambrosian in every form, especially when gazing out at the apple trees it was crafted from. 

Try this: It’s hard to choose just one drink as a highlight, but if you can convince Julian to give you a taste of the 20-year-old brandy, it’ll be worth it. As well as the brandy and traditional cider, there’s a perry, an ice cider and Somerset Pomona liqueur available.

Tours of Somerset Cider Brandy Company (somersetciderbrandy.com) take approximately an hour and a half and there is a fee of £5 per person which includes a ‘generous’ tasting (translation: you will leave tipsy).

Aging gives the apple brandy its oaky, mellow flavour Credit: Somerset Cider Brandy Company

Porlock Bay Oysters

In the 1800s, Porlock Bay’s waters were loaded with oysters, until the brackish bivalves were completely fished out in the 1890s - the poor molluscs were just too moreish for their own good. The oysters were brought back to the bay in 2013, when Pacific oysters were reintroduced to the turbulent waters of this Exmoor National Park bay. More robust than the native oyster, they’re now available year round, and all have a grade A rating, making the molluscs some of the purest around. Having them in Porlock Weir town means they’re fresh from the water, stopping briefly in the local depuration plant before making their way onto the restaurants. 

Try this: Luttrell Arms Hotel’s ‘Porlock Pie’ is made with local red venison, Exmoor Beast ale and of course, Porlock oysters. An unmissable local dish. 

Porlock Oysters are served throughout Porlock Weir town, including Porlock Weir hotel (£12 for a half dozen). Customers are also able to visit the Porlock Weir Depuration Plant to purchase oysters direct, and a Porlock Oysters outlet is planned for 2020. More information available at porlockbayoysters.co.uk

Getting there

A train from Bristol to Weston-Super-Mare takes only 25 minutes. It’s two hours direct from London Paddington to Bristol. The entire 2.5hr journey from London to Weston-super-Mare starts from £17 one way with Great Western Railway (gwr.com). 

Car hire is the best option for getting around Somerset, but if you want to avoid driving and cider-tasting, taxis are available. 

Where to stay

DoubleTree by Hilton Cadbury House in Weston-super-Mare costs from £86 per night if booked in advance, room only. The Yarn Market Hotel in Dunster is a great base for exploring Exmoor Park and rooms cost from £67.50, including breakfast. 

Inspiration for your inbox

Sign up to Telegraph Travel's new weekly newsletter for the latest features, advice, competitions, exclusive deals and comment.  

You can also follow us on TwitterFacebook and Instagram