As we publish our Greentraveller's Guide to Dorset's Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the author of the guide, Harriet O'Brien, provides an overview of the region's real-food revolution
Wild boar salami, gooey goat cheese, black garlic, walnut and rosemary soda bread… From the Cranborne estate chalk lands of northern Dorset to the coastal riches of the south, over the last few years a real-food revolution has been gaining momentum across the county.
It has in part taken its cue from the ongoing success of a few relatively big Dorset players. Dorset Cereals had been quietly making muesli for 20 years when it radically overhauled its product line – and image - in 2005. It now thrives, and spreads the Dorset name, from its base at Dorchester. Hall & Woodhouse has been brewing ales since 1777 – the company started in Weymouth, making beer for troops stationed there – and today produces award-winning Badger beers and a more recent selection of ciders. Purbeck Ice Cream began life in the late 1980s as a diversification project at Hazel and Pete Hartle’s dairy farm near Corfe Castle. It now takes the Purbeck name far and wide: as well as a great host of local cafes, restaurants and shops, it supplies many London hotels, P&O Cruises and Japanese Airlines among others.
Meantime the number of small producers in Dorset has been steadily growing – and they are becoming ever more zealous about capturing the flavours of the area. Much of their success is down to an appealing community spirit, which has been very much fostered by the new Dorset Food & Drink organisation, set up in 2013. For example, at smokehouse and charcuterie maker Capreolus in Rampisham, west Dorset, owners Karen and David Richards periodically smoke cheese for nearby Woolsery Cheese. And they’ve orchestrated a neatly beneficial system whereby otherwise unused whey from Woolsery is fed to Sam's pigs at Rob and Sam Holloway’s Locke Farm down the road. In turn this results in wonderfully flavourful meat that the Richards process at Capreolus. Formerly a boardroom executive, David Richards turned his gourmet hobby of curing meats into a business when he was made redundant. In the four years since setting up in Dorset, he and Karen have won armloads of trophies including the top prize of Champion Product at the Taste of the West Awards 2013, and in February 2014 they were finalists in the BBC Food and Farming Awards.
West Dorset, with its butchers, bakers, and even fine wine makers – Furleigh Estate near Bridport and Langham Wine near Dorchester - is progressively regarded as an outstanding foodie destination. Further north, From Dorset with Love was set up just a few years ago at Blandford Forum and has been having a big impact across the county and beyond. It was already much acclaimed for its jams and chutneys when it launched piquant Dorsetshire Sauce, which gourmets swear is now an essential ingredient for in any self-respecting kitchen. Meanwhile, the Purbeck area is starting to get into a gourmet stride. Among its producers are Dorset Charcuterie operating fom Lytchett Minster and happy to be an honourable rival to Capreolus – competition keeps quality at a high say owners Lee Morton and Ben Sugden.
Purbeck’s food revolution was in part started by Chococo. Run by husband and wife team Claire and Andy Burnet, Chococo creates some of the best chocolates in Britain (they’ve won more than 40 top awards), all handmade using sustainably produced raw chocolate from Venezuala, Grenada and Madagascar, along with fresh cream from family-run Craig’s Dairy Farm at Osmington. The fillings are for the most part a terrific celebration of Dorset: Chococo creates a special chocolate for each month, such as Dorset Blue made with Blue Vinny cheese, and Black Garlic, a product from South West Garlic Farm near Bridport that has been causing waves of excitement in the food world. Chococo’s workshops are in Wareham, but the company started up in 2002 in Swanage, where it continues to run its main outlet, a shop and café that despite being tucked away down narrow lanes inevitably draws steady streams of people. They come for the quality, but the pricing here is also wonderfully keen, well below the cost of prime chocolates in, say, Brussels or Paris.
Chococo hasn’t – yet – devised a Dorset Knob chocolate. This savoury biscuit encapsulates much of the idiosyncratic spirit of Dorset: it’s a unique, amusing looking product shaped as a small round about the size of a golf ball and made by family-run Moores bakery in Morecombelake, west Dorset, since 1880. And it has been enjoying a great surge of popularity ever since 2008 when a Dorset Knob throwing competition was incorporated into the Frome Valley Food Festival held at Cattistock on the first Sunday of May (dorsetknobthrowing.com). This attracts hundreds of ‘biscuit atheletes’ and thousands of spectators.
Other Dorset food festivals include Spring Tide in Bridport in May and Bridport Food Festival in June; Church Knowle Food Fayre in July; Eat Dorset Food Fair at Parnham House, Beaminster, in October; Dorset Food Week at the end of the October/beginning of November and the Dorset Food Festival at Athelhampton House in November (dorsetaonb.org.uk/food-and-drink/food-week-and-events). Between times you’ll find a happy concentration of top Dorset producers at farmers’ markets which take place variously at Dorchester, Blandford, Sherborne, Bridport, Wimborne and Shaftesbury. Look out for wonderful bread from Lizzie and Bekki the Baking Birds (www.homemadebylb.co.uk); sustainably caught crab from Dorset shellfish; and pies from Dorset pies which launched earlier in 2014 to much acclaim.
Words by Harriet O'Brien