A to Z Recipes

by Marion Watson

I have already written about Wiltshire, where I was brought up, and Dorset, where I now live, but another county very dear to my heart is Somerset. My father’s family all came from the area around Frome, quite close to the border with Wiltshire. My grandmother was a champion cheesemaker and I still have some of the prizes she won at Frome Cheese Show. Farmhouse cheese-making was hard and lengthy work. It must have been back-aching stirring the milk by hand, breaking up the curds, pouring them into moulds and then lifting and turning the huge round cheeses as they matured. Occasionally, quite by accident, a cheese would turn blue so that it tasted something like a Blue Cheshire. When this happened it was highly prized and was kept for family enjoyment.

Another reason for my attachment to Somerset is that I spent three very happy years as a student at Bath. This beautiful city was part of the historic county of Somerset, then in 1974 was included in the new County of Avon and is now a separate authority. It has been in existence since before Roman times, although the Romans were the first people to make it an important centre because they recognised the healing powers of its hot springs, hence they called it Aqua Sulis. It reached the height of its fame in the eighteenth century when it became the most fashionable resort in the country. Today it is Britain’s only World Heritage Site and attracts tourists from all corners of the Earth. Because of its importance to the most fashionable in the land and because it was visited by people who took "the cure" by drinking the mineral waters it developed dishes peculiar to itself and is thought by some people to have more specialities than any other English city except London. People visiting the spa were advised to eat simply in an effort to overcome the effects of gross over-eating and drinking which was commonplace in the eighteenth century. Dr Oliver, founder of the Mineral Water Hospital invented a biscuit in 1750 that was named after him - the Bath Oliver. This is a dry biscuit or cracker made from flour, butter, yeast and milk. It is pricked all over with a fork before baking and has an imprint of the doctor’s face in the centre. Sadly only one firm makes them now but they are obtainable in Bath and in other parts of the country too. They are every good eaten with cheese, especially the local Cheddar.

If you visit Bath then one of the things you must do is go to the Pump Room and listen to the trio playing while you have morning coffee and eat a Bath Bun. This is another dish attributed to Dr Oliver and is made from a rich yeast dough coloured with saffron. Unlike many other buns they do not contain currants inside but a few are sprinkled on the sticky top together with crushed lump sugar.

Another dough mixture, which originated in Bath, is the Sally Lunn Cake. There is still a shop believed to be the home of the original eighteenth century Sally Lunn who invented these rich dough cakes baked in rings. Though little is known about her some people believe that there really was a person called by that name. In her book, Sweet Sally Lunn, Pamela Oldfield suggests that she was a French Hugenot who escaped persecution to come and live in Bath and that the cakes she made had their origin in French brioches. Another theory is that as this lady called out her wares she shouted in West Country French "Solet Lune" which would be a good description of a cake with a round, flat moon-like top and a sunny golden-yellow centre. You can still buy Sally Luns and the best way to eat them is while they are hot, split open and filled with thick cream or butter.

I have already mentioned Bath Chaps in a previous article. They are the pig’s cheek or lower jaw, salted and smoked like bacon, then boiled and coated with golden breadcrumbs, like ham, and eaten cold. Originally they were made from Gloucester Old Spot pigs because they have a very long jaw. A modern version of the Bath Chap can still be bought from butchers in the area.

Pigs have always thrived where there are apples. In the autumn they used to be turned out in the orchards to clear up the windfalls. And Somerset has always had plenty of apples. The climate and soil are ideal for their cultivation and it has been a centre for cider making for hundreds of years. Cider making was introduced from France in the twelfth century, firstly to Kent and Sussex but quickly spreading to the West Country. Early cider was made from wild crabapples and was sweetened with honey and flavoured with spices. Then in the seventeenth century Viscount Scudamore started experimenting to find a good cider apple in his orchards in Herefordshire and produced the Scudamore’s Arab. At one time there were dozens of varieties of cider apple with delightful names like ‘Slack-My-Girdle’ and ‘Foxwhelp’ although now the old, large trees have been replaced by smaller bushes which are easier to manage and pick. Cider was traditionally made by crushing the apples with a stone wheel harnessed to a horse; the resulting pulp was placed between mats to make a ‘cheese’ and pressed. The drained off juice is then left to ferment. Of course today most cider is produced in factories but there is still some farmhouse cider, known as ‘scrumpy’, made. The word cider comes from the Latin sicera meaning ‘strong drink’ and scrumpy is certainly that. It is powerful stuff. The word scrumpy is derived from the dialect word scrump, meaning a small or withered apple and it is also the source of the verb scrump, meaning to ‘steal apples’. Cider is still so important in the West Country that Wassailing ceremonies continue to take place in villages such as Carhampton in January when the orchard is ‘toasted’ to ensure a good crop

Pork and apple go together and so do pork and cider. A casserole made with cider gives a pleasing contrast to the richness of the pork and also helps to tenderise the meat. It is very good with more tasteless meat like turkey. Turkey fillets braised in cider and raisins makes a very good dish and cider does wonders for chicken and fish.

Dairy cattle thrive in the West Country and as well as cheese their milk is skimmed for cream and used to make all sorts of dishes. An elegant eighteenth century Bath dish is a variation on junket called ‘Damask Cream’. Cream is cooked gently with mace and cinnamon until the flavour is absorbed. It is then cooled and after rennet has been added is left to set. Then lightly whipped cream flavoured with rosewater and sweetened with icing sugar is poured over the top and the whole dish is decorated with damask rose petals.

Cream added to that pork or turkey casserole I mentioned earlier would give a luxurious, smooth taste.

And then, of course there is Cheddar Cheese. To be given this name it had originally to be produced within thirty miles of Wells Cathedral. By the eighteenth century it was becoming highly prized and being imitated by inferior products so stringent specifications were laid down. It takes a gallon of milk to produce a pound of cheese. The largest Cheddar cheese ever made weighed eleven-hundredweight and was given to Queen Victoria by the farmers of Pennard as a wedding present in 1840. In 1939 there were over five hundred recognised Cheddar cheesemakers, now there are only a few farms that still make it, but when you try a well-matured farm-house cheese, kept perhaps for up to fifteen months, it is delicious. The process of making it has been carried all over the world and we now have it made as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It is an excellent cheese to eat with bread and pickle or a salad and is good for slicing and grating to use for cooking.

Frome Cheese Show still takes place towards the end of September and while it is more like a more general agricultural show these days there is still a cheese section where the best makers compete for coveted awards.

Rich pastures, fertile soil, a gentle climate and a coastline providing the riches of the sea, Somerset has it all.