In the list of distinctive and famous English counties, Somerset is one of the most prominent. It stands in an important geographic and cultural position, being the gateway to the counties of Devon and Cornwall and stretching from the edge of Bristol in the north, down to Minehead, which is a popular west country tourist resort on the Irish Sea coast.
The heart of the county was consists of a low-lowing region near the coast, which is surrounded by hills. To the north, are the Mendips and the southern reaches of the Cotswolds; while to the west, you will find Exmoor and the Quantocks – both named as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The county is also known for its long stretches of largely unspoilt, beautiful coastline.
The area was an crucial part of England’s pre-history and there is evidence of prehistoric settlement in many locations, most notably the Mendip Hills. Archaelogists have also uncovered evidence of a remarkable prehistoric lake village that was found in the Glastonbury area.
Somerset played an important role in the Roman occupation of Britain, mainly as a source of lead, but it was also the site of a number of villas in the region, as well as the town of Bath, known as Aquae Sulis, which was built on the site of natural hot springs.
In the post-Roman era, Somerset initially formed a border area between the invading Saxons and the native Britons, but by the 600s, it had become an important part of the Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. Subsequently, the Normans built important castles in the area, including those at Taunton and Dunster, and Bath began to prosper as a key base for the medieval wool trade.
By the 18th and early 19th centuries Bath had become a highly fashionable resort, and tourism was also to the fore in the development of coastal towns such as Weston-super-Mare. At the same time, the county town of Taunton took on a more significant role, thanks to a combination of new railway links and increasing industrialisation.
Quarrying is still crucial to Somerset’s economy, and limestone, sandstone, sand and gravel are all quarried in the region, while there is some peat extraction in the Sedgemoor area. But tourism and agriculture dominate throughout most of the county. Bath, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the resorts along the coast, together with a variety of National Trust properties and mansions attract thousands of visitors every years, a form of trade that is made easier by the M5 motorway.
When it comes to food, Somerset is perhaps best known for its tradition of cider making, but as well as the plentiful orchards, there is a thriving dairy farming and stock raising industry in the county, and Somerset has become known for its traditional food producers and modern artisanal businesses.
This famous cow’s milk cheese, which is one of the most popular cheeses in England and the wider world, was first created in the Somerset village of Cheddar in the 12th century. Cheddar is a hard cheese that is made using pasteurized cow’s milk, and can be produced in a variety of colours, ranging from white to pale yellow.
When newly made, Cheddar displays a smooth texture, but this gradually becomes more crumbly as the cheese ages and at the same time, the cheese develops a much sharper flavour, which is popular with many English shoppers. According to the ‘father of Cheddar’; cheese maker Joseph Harding, who introduced new techniques for cheese making, true Somerset Cheddar should display a close texture, with a full, fine flavor including a hint of hazelnut, and a melt-in-the-mouth quality.
Bath Harvest Rapeseed Oil
The Romans brought oil seed rape to Britain and the crop has thrived in many areas of the country, not least in the fields near to the city of Bath. Bath Harvest Rapeseed Oil is grown entirely on Wilmington Farm in Somerset, in small batches, and is then cold pressed, before it is double filtered and bottled by hand. The resulting oil provides a rich source of Omega 3 and Vitamin E and the producers, who are part of the Duchy of Cornwall collective, have won multiple awards.
One of the biggest attractions of Bath Harvest Rapeseed Oil is the company’s commitment to a ‘field to fork’ ethos in which the origins of the ingredients is crucial, and the oil is popular with environmentally conscious chefs, cooks and shoppers across the UK. The taste is distinctively nutty, and the oil is extremely versatile, working well in cakes or in frying fish and vegetables.
Muddlewell is a popular English cheese that comes from North Wootton, Somerset, and is made at the Wootton Organic Dairy. The inspiration for Muddlewell was the idea of combining creamy flavour with crumbly and dry texture and the result is this remarkable hard cheese, made with a combination of raw Jersey cow’s milk and raw sheep’s milk, which is usually ready between 4 and 8 weeks old.
The cheese has a natural rind, but it offers a texture that is crumbly and creamy and it has intense aromas. The flavours are mild initially, but they develop as the cheese matures, and mature Muddlewell is complex enough to be eaten on its own.
These biscuits are a popular accompaniment for cheese and these days can be found on the shelves of most supermarkets throughout England.
They were originally created by Dr William Oliver, an eighteenth-century physician who worked treating the many sick visitors who came to Bath to benefit from the curative properties of the thermal waters. He was also instrumental in establishing the Royal Mineral Water Hospital which looked after less fortunate patients. When Dr Oliver died he left the biscuit recipe, a sack of flour and £100 to his coachman, who subsequently set up a shop in Green Street, Bath, selling the biscuits.
Stawley is an English cheese produced by Caroline and Will Atkinson near Somerset. The cheese is made from raw goat’s milk and has a mold-ripened wrinkly rind. It matures for 4 to 6 weeks, although it can be consumed when it’s just 10 days old.
The aromas are nutty and mushroomy and the texture is smooth, firm, fudgy, and dense. The flavors are herbal, honey-like, sweet, and almost hoppy, although not overwhelmingly. It’s recommended to serve it with honey or English cherries and pair it with a glass of cool Riesling.
Of the array of cheeses to choose from in Somerset, this is one of the most fascinating. Applewood originated in Ilchester and was first produced in 1965. Made from cow’s milk, it is a type of cheddar cheese that has a semi-hard, dense texture along with a natural rind. It is also sometimes known as Applewood Smoked Cheddar, though it is not smoked, but artificially flavored with smoke. It is also dusted with paprika, which helps to give it a distinctive amber colour.
The flavor is both spicy and smoky, and it is ideally served grated over baked potatoes or pasta, but it also works well as an after dinner treat with apples and raisins.
Somerset Salt Marsh Lamb
Salt Marsh Lamb is known as a product of the county of Kent, but it is also found in Somerset. In the area of Bridgwater Bay, flocks of sheep graze on the local salt marshes, producing that distinctively rich salt marsh lamb flavour. Available from June to December, Salt Marsh Lamb has a unique flavour and texture that is the result of the animals grazing on the wild grasses and herbs, such as sea lavender and marsh samphire, that can be found growing on estuary salt marshes.
Ogleshield is a popular artisan cheese made in Cadbury, Somerset. The cheese is produced using raw Jersey cow’s milk. Its rind is washed in brine once every three days, which results in a sticky, slightly pungent rind which also softens the taste into a remarkable sweet and fruity combination.
Ogleshield was created by Bill Oglethorpe, who took the original Jersey Shield cheese and added the washing process, affecting the texture, flavor, aroma, and the quality of the rind itself. Ogleshield goes well with a number of dishes, as it offers excellent melting properties.
Sally Lunn Bun
According to legend, a Huguenot refugee called Sally Lunn, arrived in Bath in 1680 and began to work with a baker in the street that was called Lilliput Alley. The legend says that Sally taught the baker how to produce her light, airy, brioche-style bun, and the resulting bun soon became popular at the afternoon teas and public breakfasts that were fashionable in Bath at the time.
The recipe for the Sally Lunn bun is still a closely guarded secret, and even gets a mention in the deeds to Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House and Musuem, one of the oldest buildings in Bath.
Whortleberry is the West Country name for the wild blueberries that are found across Exmoor and Dartmoor – berries that are known as bilberries in other parts of the country. The berries have a distinctive flavour, that makes for a delightful flavour-packed jam that is tasty spread on a morning slice of toast or with scones and clotted cream.