19 June 1998

Somerset crafts and traditions on show at Royal Bath &West

FORMER Bath and England rugby star Gareth Chilcott had the choice of 10t of cheeses at this years Royal Bath and West Show. Besides presenting awards to the winners of the dairy produce section of the show where entries exceeded all records this year, Gareth judged the new celebrity cheese competition and awarded the prize to Melton Intrigue, a new, mild, creamy, blue cheese from Millway Foods of Harby, Leics.

"Tantalizing" is the word the makers use to describe the taste of Melton Intrigue and visitors were eager to taste the free samples.

Another cheese popular with samplers was Cheddar Snack from Wyke Farms, one of the companies exhibiting in the British Farm Food Fair. This cheese was a plastic packed strip intended for childrens lunch boxes soon to be marketed by Wyke Farms.

&#42 Buzzed around

"Say cheese," was the message carried on the chest of the Dalek-style robot that buzzed around outside the hall encouraging youngsters interest in Cheddar Snack – a snack which they readily consumed like bars of white chocolate. But "Say cheese" was not the extent of this mechanical chaps conversation with the children who quickly claimed "him" as a friend.

The trophy for the best stand in the Taste of the West section of the food fair went to R J Sheppy & Son, from Bradford-on-Tone, near Taunton, one of several farm cider-makers exhibiting there. The company won a gold award for Bullfinch medium sparkling cider and a silver for Goldfinch dry sparkling cider in the Safeway-sponsored West County Food Awards.

David Sheppy was manning the stand single-handed when Farmlife called by and doing a brisk trade but was able to explain that the family firm runs a 150ha (370 acre) mixed arable and beef farm with 17ha (42 acres) of bush and standard cider fruit.

Competitive classes for farmhouse cider-makers were staged in the bees and honey marquee. Here Mr V V G Bennett, of Edithmead, took the top award with his winning entry in the class for six green champagne bottles of natural sparkling dry to medium cider.

Tourists coming to Somerset think of the county in terms of orchards and cider-making, says June Small of Charlton Orchards, a company selling apple juice and other products in the Spirit of the West marquee. June has received a grant from the Royal Bath and West of England Society and Somerset County Council to map the cider orchards of Somerset and record the varieties in three particular areas.

"There are as many being replanted as there are being removed," she says. Both Somerset County Council and Matthew Clark, which took over Taunton Cider, make grants for the planting of standard orchards, says June who is keen to see a secure future for the traditional Somerset cider apple varieties such as Sheeps Nose, Yarlington Mill, Kingston Black and Yeovil Sour. While carrying out an earlier apple project she produced a tourist-style map identifying the sites of 127 cider makers.

The future looks a little brighter for Somersets willow growers, too. Both John Excell and Paul Tuck, who were exhibiting in the forestry section, spoke of increased demand for baskets. Paul makes traditional baskets, trading as Exmoor Baskets and Hurdles.

&#42 Yeoman member

John sells baskets in addition to being a cane and rush seating craftsman. He is a yeoman member of the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers and a former vice-chairman of the Basketmakers Association*.

"Basketmaking was on the way out in the 1960s, but those who stayed with it are now sought after. Even supermarkets are interested in baskets now," says John, who runs The Cane Workshop at Westport. "There are so many things connected with basketry, and contemporary willow furniture and willow sculpture are adding to the interest," he says.

The Basketmakers Associa-tion has more than 900 members in the UK and abroad and welcomes professional and amateur craftsmen as well as those who want to learn willow, hedgerow, cane and rush basketry, cane, rush and cord seating, straw plaiting, three-dimensional plaiting, coiling, twining and basketry from re-cycled materials.

Chris Beck, a basketmaker who shared a stand with Paul Tuck – one of the highly commended stands in the forestry section – went into the trade straight from school, learning in the traditional way by working in a shop with about 20 basketmakers. Now, as well as producing baskets, hurdles and items like decorative plant supports, he teaches basketmaking in a local college. The courses run for ten weeks, but, he says, the craft cannot be perfected in that time.

&#8226 Basketmakers Association, inquiries: Hon Secretary, Basket-makers Association, King William Cottage, Yalberton Road, Paignton, Devon TQ4 7PE.

Dairy products, cider and

willows for basketry – the

three commodities

traditionally associated with

Somerset – feature at

the Royal Bath and West

Show. Ann Rogers reports

Left: John Excell with an armful of plant troughs and a welcome wreath, some of the products that are increasing interest in basketry. Above: Wyke Farm had some high-tech help to promote Cheddar Snack cheese to young showgoers.