When I moved to Somerset after a lifetime of city living, I thought the days of good food on my doorstep were behind me. Turns out I couldn’t be more wrong…
As in life, much in cookery world confounds expectations. Meringues? Easy. Dressing a salad well? Surprisingly hard. Perfect ice-cream? Stripy jelly? No sweat. Finding great English butter? Still looking.
So when I moved to Somerset after an entire life of city living - London, New York, LA - it was my expectations more than the mud that tripped me up. Turns out there are places to eat out, Dad. Good ones, interesting ones, like the Talbot Inn, in Mells, that serve up veal tongue in salt beef broth, or caerphilly stuffed courgette flower fritters with as much nonchalance as my old neighbourhood Italian dished up spag bol.
And then there is the produce. So shoot me for assuming I'd never get cheeses as good as those at Neal's Yard Dairy, or tastier meat than that at Lidgate's. (Where did I think it all came from, for goodness sake?) That the handmade pasta at my local market in Frome, filled with local ricotta and lemon peel, or coloured intense pink with beetroot would stand shoulder to shoulder with any in a Tuscan village deli. I couldn't have dreamt that I would find a cider just as enticing, with more depth, vigour and subtlety than most champagnes. Or that that newly picked cucumbers, unencumbered by their plastic sheath, could smell and taste as delicately perfumed as a garden flower.
OK, so it rains more here. And there are no pavements to walk on. You have to drive to see a movie, and, honestly, the theatre is not really worth bothering about. But the food? Ah, the food is second to none…
Brown and Forrest
Ever wondered where the likes of Fortnum & Mason, Rick Stein and The Gilbert Scott got their smoked produce? Look no further. Brown & Forrest smokes everything, from traditional Somerset eels to duck breast and scallops. You can even take your own catch of the day for them to smoke, and can discuss whether you're better with an apple and beech smoke, or a classic hickory. smokedeel.co.uk
Tom Calver has been scooping up cheese prizes left, right and centre for his hand-crafted traditional cheddar made in much the same way as it was right there by Mrs Brickell over 100 years ago. Today it is honoured with both European PDO status and the much rarer Artisan Somerset Cheddar designation from Slow Food, as well as numerous awards. Nutty, complex, and long on flavour, it's simply the perfect cheddar. The more recently introduced creamy, crumbly caerphilly and delicate ricotta are also unmissable. Buy direct from the dairy and you can watch them being made and have a peek into ageing rooms, too. westcombedairy.com
Somerset Cider Brandy Company
If you think of cider as a poor man's drink, think again. Burrow Hill has been producing some of the most highly regarded booze in the country. Mellow, golden, methode champeniose ciders as well as classic scrumpy sold in a petrol can, clean, pure eau de vie, and star of the show 5, 10 and 20-year-old cider brandies, classy as any armagnac. prize winners, over and again, and deservedly so. ciderbrandy.co.uk
Well Hung Meat Company
Want beautifully hung, grass-fed, organic meat at little more than supermarket prices, direct to your door? Well Hung Meat is your answer. Their farmland hugs the south Devon coastline, rearing animals that are grass-fed for nine or ten months of the year, resulting in meat that is both incredibly tasty, tender and very rich in naturally occurring nutrients such as omega oils. wellhungmeat.com
One the first and still the best organic produce delivery scheme, Riverford's distinctive brown boxes are a treasure trove direct from the farm. The potatoes will be have mud on them, the carrots and beetroot will still have their tops, the salad will need to be checked for friendly if unwelcome visitors - all just as if you had picked it from the end of your garden. The choice is tremendous and now includes local meats, cheeses, dairy and extensive deli produce - you can even get a bunch of wildflowers to complete the farm-fresh feel. Particularly brilliant for stocking up for a holiday rental, and if you're in South Devon, don't miss a visit to one of the farm shops. riverford.co.uk
Jazz Hands Pasta
Beautifully made, utterly delicious fresh pastas, both inventive and traditional. You'll find bright-green wild garlic shapes in the spring, deep-pink beetroot in high summer, black squid ink for when the mood takes you. The hand-filled shapes are particularly inspiring, whether stuffed with local smoked trout from Mere, goat’s curd and lemon peel, or more classically Westcombe ricotta and spinach, every single bite is perfect. Visit The Independent, Frome's 1st Sunday of the Month market, to find the stall.
Joanna Weinberg has written cookery columns for The Times, Red and currently Conde Nast Traveller. She has written two cookbooks, How to Feed Your Friends with Relish and Cooking for Real Life, published by Bloomsbury, and runs Kitchen Table Cookery at The Talbot Inn, Mells, Somerset