Editor’s note: Brie Hurd received an American Cheese Society John Crompton Memorial Scholarship for Retailers, which allowed her to attend the 29th Annual ACS Conference and Competition in Raleigh, N.C., in 2012. It was just the beginning of her cheese education travels.
Enlightening. Fulfilling. Surreal. These are some of the first words that come to mind when I reflect on my trip to England [this past April]. “Once in a lifetime” has escaped my lips a few times, only to have me knocking on wood a moment later to avoid jinxing myself out of future adventures like this one. This was one of the most intensive, enriching weeks of my life. I was touring England with Cheese Journeys — a program providing cheese professionals and super-foodies with the opportunity to travel internationally and engage in an in-depth exploration of European cheeses, the artisans who make them, and the cultures where they come alive.
After a couple hours in the car and a brief lunch at Stonehenge, we arrived at North Cadbury Court in Somerset: the family home of renowned cheesemaker Jamie Montgomery and our home for the next few nights. Let me emphasize — this is no ordinary home. With 21 bedrooms, an enormous kitchen, multiple living rooms, an expansive ballroom, a grand piano, a great hall, gorgeous Elizabethan and Georgian architecture, and glorious views of the broad green lawns and Cadbury Castle — reputed to be home to King Arthur’s Court at Camelot — in the distance, this estate was more than any of us could have dreamed.
It was bright and early the next morning when we delved into our first intensive cheese day. We spent it at Montgomery’s, learning about the dairy, the cheesemakers, the unique elements that go into making Montgomery’s Cheddar what it is: artisanal, classic, and renowned as one of the most magnificent clothbound English cheddars.
We were scheduled to spend the morning with Jamie Montgomery, and as luck would have it, it was the morning when the buyers from Neal’s Yard Dairy were making their monthly pilgrimage from London to Somerset to taste batches of Montgomery’s Cheddar and make their selections. It is difficult to describe the thrill I felt at being able not only to observe but also to participate in the selection of such an exquisite product, alongside so many legendary professionals.
One at a time, 10-month-old wheels of Montgomery’s Cheddar were plugged and samples offered so that the eight of us could taste and evaluate each wheel’s subtle nuances. Jamie and the Neal’s Yard team took notes and rated the different wheels. We observed their every move and listened intently to their remarks, logging every bit of information we possibly could and committing to memory such uncommon cheese descriptors as brothy, juicy and sparkly. I felt I was a part of something sacred — as though I were backstage before a Beatles concert, hanging out with the band while they warmed up.
We had tasted more than 20 different batches made in June 2013 when it was finally time to narrow things down. Jason Hinds, Bronwen Percival and Owen Baily made collective decisions about which batches they would take for the Neal’s Yard retail and wholesale markets. And when it came time to select for US export, they turned to us, asking, “Well, we have four Americans in the room … what do you guys think?”
Allow me to pause here and clarify that being asked your opinion by Jamie Montgomery and the buyers of Neal’s Yard Dairy is how I imagine I would feel if Paul McCartney asked for my opinion on his guitar riff. I was terrified to respond, yet compelled to say something of real significance as quickly as possible — preferably with some amount of coolness. When the Beatles include you in a recording session and then ask for your opinion, you give it! So I spoke up. “I really enjoyed the batch from June 2nd. I know it was one of the gentler wheels, but it had a nice structure and a round nuttiness that was quite balanced and pleasant.” Others nodded their heads in affirmation. “I’m planning on placing a big order for my shop when we are back in London later this week, and I would be even more excited to do so if I knew that this batch of Monty’s were available.”
“Well, why don’t you sign a wheel then?” Jason , asked enthusiastically. “We’ll make sure it gets to you.” And with that, Jamie handed me a Sharpie, vaulted himself up onto the shelves among the stately Cheddars, searched out the June 2nd wheel we had tasted and brought it down so I could sign the tag and claim it for The Cheese Shop. Since that morning, I have relived the experience upwards of 100 times. When that special wheel of Monty’s arrives at The Cheese Shop in September, I will be taking pictures, sharing as many tastes as possible and probably framing the tag with my signature.
In the days that followed, we visited four more amazing cheesemakers in Somerset and Devon. We spent a morning with Will Atkinson at Hill Farm Dairy and toured the most beautiful, pristine cheesemaking facility. We hung out with Tom Calver — maker of Westcombe Cheddar and Duckett’s Caerphilly — who collaborated with the Wild Beer Company to put together a delicious beer and cheese tasting for us.
We enjoyed a very extensive tour of Quicke’s Cheese in Devon, and then devoured a delicious lunch at the dairy — dense, rich bread with Quicke’s homemade butter, quiche, cider and a fantastic salad of flowers and delicate greens that Mary Quicke had handpicked from her family garden that morning.
We traveled even farther south to Totnes for an afternoon with Mark Sharman, owner of Sharpham Wine and Cheese and maker of Ticklemore. I was pleased to discover that in addition to this delightful little goat that has long been one of my favorites, Sharpham makes many other cheeses, which we tasted with some of their homemade wines.
My experience in England was better than I could have imagined. On our way back to London, I was just beside myself. I was gleeful at having had the opportunity to spend time with renowned cheesemakers whose work I have long admired. And I felt utterly nourished by the spectacular setting of lush, green countryside — one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. It was one of the most fulfilling, enriching weeks of my life, and since I have since come home to Boston and to The Cheese Shop, I’ve been eagerly sharing every detail of my trip with anyone who will listen!
Brie Hurd is the cheese buyer and lead cheesemonger at The Cheese Shop of Concord, Mass. Her tenure at the store began during college, when she realized she’d found her calling.
She was a member of the inaugural trip from Cheese Journeys, a new company dedicated to creating unforgettable food travel experiences built around love and passion for artisan cheese. It offers two types of tours: one for enthusiasts and one for cheese/food professionals.
Anna Juhl, co-owner of Cheese Journeys and scion of Salt Lake City’s Juhl Haus Market and Café family, and Jenny Linford, a British food writer/cheese expert, host the England tours. Accompanying the group is U.S. cheese educator and author, Tenaya Darlington (a.k.a. Madame Fromage), author of the “Di Bruno Brothers' House of Cheese.”
The next professional tour is April 13-19, 2015. Costs for both tours are: $4,990 per person/double occupancy and $5,190 per person/single occupancy.
A professional tour to France — Savoie, Jura and Alsace — is scheduled for May 24-June 3, 2015.