“Of all the blue cheeses, I love this one the best.”
A sharp elbowed lady ploughed through the crowds hovering by the samples and made a beeline for the pieces of Dorset Blue Vinny, clearly knowing a fine local cheese from the massive selection on offer. Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival is a fantastic place to taste your favourite cheeses – but it’s also an opportunity to try something completely new and unusual.
The festival is a showcase of cheeses from across the South West. Sampling a three year old vintage cheddar from Keen’s, I loved the strong mature flavour. White Lake Cheese’s sheep feta from near Shepton Mallet, aptly called Fetish, is barrel-aged in brine – it was a refreshing change to the standard supermarket imports that end up in a Greek salad. La Fresca Margarita, an award winning queso fresco from Feltham’s Farm that was drizzled with honey was a winner, as was their creamy Gert Lush.
There were crowds around the Sparkenhoe Blue cheese from Leicestershire, and at the Book and Bucket Cheese Company where the range of cheeses, all with a literary theme, was a conversation starter. Will it be Hardy or Shakespeare? The unusual-looking cheese with a bluish purple rinse turned out to be a wine-soaked variety from Italy. Another pungent tase was a beer-drunk Italian soft cheese – their truffle-infused cheese was more palatable for some.
And that’s the beauty of the festival. You can discover a new (or old) favourite, or experiment with something you would never consider buying on your weekly shop.
The rising temperatures
With the distinctive aromas of Renegade Monk and Tunworth cheese infiltrating the tents, how did the traders manage on one of the hottest days of the year when temperatures hit 30 degrees? Did the cheese melt? The 2023 festival will certainly be remembered as one of the hottest.
“We only took out the cheeses we were sampling and we had lots of refrigerated ice packed containers,” said Penny Nagle from Feltham’s Farm. “But it was so so hot in the tent!”
Traders came well prepared for working in heatwave with perishable goods. Sue Plummer, helping on the Mere Trout stall, had crates densely packed with ice, including chilled containers for people who wanted to store their shopping while still looking around. On the Real Cure venison burger stand, the good weather was a relief: they echoed many farners as they said “At least we got the harvest in!”
More than cheese
But there’s a lot more than cheese at Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival. The food vans had everything from raclette to Thai street food and crepes. There were fresh hand-dived scallops and crab sandwiches from Lyme Regis. Enticing fish cakes from Calshot-based Fabulous Catch Company, included show specials with cheesy recipes. The festival is increasingly a focal point for quality specialist food connoisseurs. Spice traders, Stony Groves from near Dorchester, displayed their Cambodian Kampot pepper and Himalayan pink salt – renowned as being among the best in the world. Tea sampling at Comins was a delight, with the refreshing taste of a first flush Darjeeling and Japanese green tea.
Their exquisitely delicate tea pots on display added a charm to this specialist stand. Local Orchard 101 did a roaring trade in apple cider vinegar from Sturminster Newton. Mounter’s Gin from Marnhull flew the flag for local alcohol, along with liqueurs from Mure Liqueurs and from Forager Spirit. It was another opportunity to try something unusual such as cherry kombucha from Bath Culture House, learning about fermented food and their benefits to your gut. The charcuterie was also out in force, with abundant samples of cured meats such as Filletto or fennel salami from Somerset Charcuterie (an ideal accompaniment to all that cheese!).
In an adjacent tent and outside, there were rows and rows of crafts. From jewellery to chopping boards, mirrors to knitted hats, there was something to tempt most people. There were charity stalls too, including the popular Vale Pantry tombola.
In the background, the cheers from the children’s entertainer’s crowd and the squawk of a Punch and Judy show blended with the traditional sound of folk music. People chatted over a beer or ice cream, relieved that tiny droplets of rain were beginning to fall and finally breaking the heatwave.
Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival is much more than cheese – it is emerging into a fine food event, and a terrific opportunity to showcase the best local produce. Here’s to 2024.