Say ‘cheese': it’s festival time!
Each September, Sturminster Newton hosts a cheese festival. Michael Handy found out more.
Published in September ’11
Cheese is an odd foodstuff. It is, at the same time, one of the staples of rural life and the height of urban sophistication. Roman soldiers were given cheese as part of their rations and the heart of Hardy’s vale of little dairies has long had a more authentic connection with cheese. Dorset’s Blue Vinny, which is now designated as a PGI – Protected Geographical Indication product which must be made in the area and have specified characteristics – was born of the fact that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the cream was skimmed off locally produced milk to make Dorset butter, which was highly prized in London.
It was with what was left of the milk that Blue Vinny was made. These days Londoners may not seek out butter from the county, but they flock to ever-more-upmarket cheese emporia in search of something new, or indeed something traditional. Each year, in the middle of September they are also, in increasing numbers, visiting Sturminster Newton, whose cheese festival is something the likes of which they simply cannot find anywhere else.
So how did a compact market town in North Dorset become such a magnet for tiriphiles – cheese-lovers, how did the cheese festival come into being and what exactly does it offer to the visitor? The answer to the first question is quite simply thanks to the existence of the Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival itself. The answer to the final question, will be explored over the course of this article, but includes for this year, the opportunity to try the newly crowned best cheese in the world (see box on page 40).
However, let us concentrate for a moment on the central question: how did the cheese festival itself start? The answer is that rarest of combinations: forward thinking and immediate, concerted community action in the face of a crushing disappointment during what was a period of upheaval in the life of the town.
According to Helen Lacey of the Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival, it was a huge blow to the community which led directly to the invention of the festival in 1998: ‘When the market closed it was thought that the town needed something else to keep it vital.’ The cheese festival was dreamt up in order for us to have an event based in the town that would continue to bring visitors to Sturminster Newton after the market closed.
Back in 1998, Sturminster Newton’s creamery was the focal point of the festival; tours of the creamery formed a significant part of the then three-day cheese festival. It was the centre of the town not just geographically, but spiritually and not least economically.
The creamery had been formed by a co-operative of local farmers in 1913 with the aims of making traditional Cheddar and to supply fresh milk to the surrounding area. The Milk Marketing Board (MMB) bought the combine in 1937 and, when the MMB was deregulated in 1994, its ownership passed to Dairy Crest Ltd. The creamery, which produced around 1000 tonnes of traditional cheddar a year, was closed by the company at the end of December 2000.
The closure was a body blow to the town – not least to the festival. However, just as the town has reinvented its heart with the development of the Exchange community, arts and learning centre, so the festival redesigned itself to be a two-day weekend event and, since 2000, has survived and thrived despite the closure of the creamery.
So what exactly is a cheese festival, and what are the offerings to attract visitors to this, rather than other earlier rural events in North Dorset? Someone who should know is Emily Davies of Dorset Blue Vinny, daughter of Mike Davies, who reintroduced the cheese variety to commercial cheese-making in 1980, and one of the exhibitors who has been coming to the festival since its inauguration. ‘It’s just got the most amazing atmosphere,’ says Emily. The reason why it works is that it was born from the heart of the town.’
As to its continuing success, she explains that ‘one of the real successes is that the organisers don’t overcharge, so visitors come into the show with an attitude of being happy to spend their money on the exibitors’ products.’ Emily, who runs the Blue Soup Company, which takes the family-produced cheese and uses it as a basis for seasonal soups, adds: ‘ We have been very lucky to have the festival so close to us. It’s such a wonderful opportunity for people to come and try cheeses from lots of producers. It sounds a bit, well, cheesey, but the festival is magical.’
This year, Ford Farms will be exhibiting at the show for the eleventh time, although this year’s event will, no doubt be a little bit special, owing to their Dorset-made, Somerset-aged cheese winning the top prize at the International Cheese Awards. Managing Director Mike Pullin explains that ‘Pete Mitchell – formerly of the Sturminster Creamery – came across to work with us in 2001 and we started doing the show after that.’
As well as the opportunity to sample and buy cheeses, there is information and entertainment at the Mousetrap Theatre, which is an on-site food theatre with cookery and cheese demonstrations. According to Helen Lacey, ‘it’s about getting people to learn more about cheese. Kids seem fascinated by the cheese-making process and, if they are being honest, so are the adults.’
One of most popular elements of the cheese shows is where there are blind tastings; during these demonstrations, people who claim not to like certain styles and types of cheeses have their misconceptions about how they taste wiped away when they sample a cheese without first knowing what it is.
For those who cannot have too much cheese, Stalbridge supermarket Dike and Son – who sponsor the Mousetrap Theatre and who also bring an artificial cow along to allow children to learn how to milk – will be offering a blue cheese ploughmans and cider as fare to keep visitors going between cheese samples. Although the ploughman’s lunch was a marketing construct, invented by the English Country Cheese Council in 1960 to promote the sale of cheese in pubs, so deeply entrenched within the British psyche is it, that a 50-year tradition now seems a centuries-old one.
For non-cheese-lovers, or those who just need a little something to balance out their cheese intake, the festival offers a dozen caterers, and there is also a real ale and cider tent for those who wish to wet their whistles.
For those partners who have been dragged to a cheese event against their will, there are over sixty craft and charity stalls as well as 43 ‘non-cheese’ exhibitors. Conscious of how tiring walking around and eating can be, the organisers helpfully create a central seating area from straw bales, from where one can enjoy the entertainment laid on. On Sunday, The Huckleberries will once again be playing between a mix of jogs, reels and bluegrass, while the town’s Exchange hosts a festival-related concert by Show of Hands at 8.00 on the Saturday evening.
Although all of the preceding may sound like plenty to keep the adults occupied, the cheese festival organisers have not ignored the issue of those visitors wishing to come with children. In addition to the cow-milking and cheese-making events, there is plenty to keep children entertained. There is dancing from Morris Men, a Punch and Judy professor and a circus skills demonstration. Given that children under fourteen years of age do not have to pay to enter the festival, and with the entry price for adults at just four pounds, being perceived as offering good value is clearly at the forefront of the organisers’ minds.
Mindful of the congestion that can occur at the start and end of each day, the cheese festival is this year also offering a free park-and-ride service from the Sturminster High School (on the B3092) to the festival in order to ease congestion for visitors and also for the town’s residents.
Sturminster Newton’s Cheese Festival may not be the largest food event in the country, it may not even be the biggest or the longest-established, nor does it have a cheese-making competition attached to it, but it keeps growing in attendance and popularity. Now firmly established on the foodie calendar, people from the capital, Berkshire and further afield book their holidays around it.
Helen Lacey thinks that she knows what it is that attracts visitors in increasing numbers and from near and far to come back, year after year: ‘It’s a unique event that can be enjoyed by all the family in a fantastic setting with its own special atmosphere.’
It is perhaps more than that, though. Perhaps the enthusiasm is because cheese is in the collective DNA of the town. The cheese festival is a way both for those who were and those who were not connected with the creamery to be able to nurture and to maintain the dairy heritage of the Blackmore Vale and of Sturminster Newton.
• The Sturminster Newton Cheese Festival is open 10.00-5.30 on the weekend of 10-11 September. For further information go to www.cheesefestival.co.uk