Bilby Bites - the food blog from Bilby Marketing

West Country Cheese Co.

On a wet Saturday in August, my BFF (best food friend) and I decided we would head off on another of our bourgeois adventures, looking for great food to eat and chat about. We caught the train up to Barnstaple with few expectations, but in good spirits. After the very pleasant train trip we walked the short distance to Barnstaple town centre with umbrella overhead and made our way through the weekend shoppers towards the historic Pannier market. I hadn’t been to Barnstaple in a number of years, but of course nothing much had changed. What I was very happy to discover was that Butcher’s Row, opposite the Pannier Market contained several fabulous specialist food shops that I had taken very little notice of on my previous trips. In my defence I was usually working, but still I should have paid more attention.

Amongst the shops along Butchers Row are a fishmongers, a greengrocers, Gratton’s the butcher and my key focus, the West Country Cheese Co. Originally, when the complex was finished in 1855, the entire street was full of butchers, hence the name, but I’m quite glad of the variety that has taken over today. If you are wondering, like I was, what a Pannier market is, it refers to the baskets that producers and sellers would use to sell their wares in the street before the market was built. In order to ease the congestion caused by so many sellers running hither and thither, the council decided to overhaul this important part of the city and the buildings contribute much to the charm of Barnstaple even now.

Wandering down Butcher’s Row a little aimlessly it has to be said, we were taken by the window of the West Country Cheese Co. as it displayed a number of old apothecary jars with taps containing, what we were soon to discover, were oils and vinegars. Now I’m a sucker for this sort of olde-worlde shop fitting, so we were both drawn in like cartoon characters floating on the scent of a roast chicken. I promptly bought some of the Fig & Date Balsam Crème Vinegar in a sweet conical shaped bottle with a cork top. I admit I didn’t even try it as I was certain that it was right up my street, although there were taster dishes on display if you really don’t like chancing things. Luckily, my impulsiveness paid off. The 100ml bottle was £3.95, which I was more than happy to pay, although over the last 2 weeks I have drizzled it on just about everything I’ve eaten so it’s disappearing at a rate of knots. Sweet, syrupy and very creamy; it’s all that it says on the ticket.

With my first purchase in hand within 2 minutes of entering the store, I knew I was in trouble in terms of finances and free carrying arms. The shelves are stocked with a huge selection of pickles, chutneys, oils and vinegars, all of which are obviously chosen to enhance your cheese board. The predominant item for sale is, after all, cheese. As you would expect, the main counter is stuffed with a wide range of West Country cheeses including Lynher Dairies Cornish Yarg, Ducketts Caerphilly, Ticklemore’s Devon Blue, Sharpham Estate’s Elmhirst, Quickes Extra Mature Farmhouse Cheddar, Pennard Ridge Red & Vulscombe Goat Cheese. The rest of the UK & Europe is not forgotten either with just about every type of cheddar, brie, blue, goat, sheep & buffalo cheese temptingly represented behind the glass. One of the fabulously quirky ideas that owner Debbie Priestley has come up with, is that of the wedding cheesecake. It’s a stunning idea that I think would go down a treat as an alternative to your regular fruit or sponge cake. Even the poor old cupcake, which I never grow tired of, has become a bit of a wedding commoner. Imagine guests being able to slice off a piece of Stinking Bishop at the end of the speeches? Perhaps not that particular cheese, but the sky’s the limit otherwise.

Olives et al products are available both in jars and to buy in fresh 200g portions if you prefer. The wooden bowls and spoons displaying the olives and other antipasto treats are incredibly tempting. Other local producers stocked in store include the Fine Cheese Co. in Bath, Fudges, Fortts, Brendon Hill Crafts and South Devon Chilli Farms. I finally took up my small range of goodies to pay at the counter – I’d managed to get myself under control to some extent – where I was served by owner Debbie who has been running the store for the last 3 years. When I mentioned we were heading to James Duckett at the Old Custom House for lunch I was delighted to find out that the West Country Cheese Co. supply the restaurant and many others in the area. Just before I was able to call an end to my buying spree, I noticed the extremely good looking pies that were peering out at me from behind the glass. These are multi award-winning Tom's Pies no less, and as I had heard a bit about them and I’m very fond of a decent pie, I bought a Steak, Carrot & Pickled Walnut one for JC and a Chicken & Leek with lemon thyme for myself. I regrettably avoided the Lamb with chickpea and chorizo option this time around, as I had already consumed my body weight (slight exaggeration) in chorizo that week. The pies were for dinner that night and I’m pleased to report were very, very good.

If you can’t get up to Barnstaple in the near future, you might be happy to hear that the West Country Cheese Co. offer an online shopping or call and order service so you can get your fix without leaving your chair. Gift vouchers are also available in £10 denominations and can be used in the store or over the phone, but not online. I’m keeping that idea in mind for Christmas as it would make an impressive foodie gift that’s a little different. As we finally walked away from the deli, cheerfully clutching our yummy purchases, we were greeted by a gentleman in top hat and tails riding a 19th century tricycle down Butcher's Row. Whilst it was slightly bizarre, it was also rather lovely and added to my newly acquired view that Barnstaple was definitely worth another visit.