The town built on chocolate

One Sunday during the spring of 1878, two brothers walked through the English countryside four miles south of Birmingham. For weeks they had been looking for something. As they stood in a plot of rural land stretching 14½ acres, just west of the village of Stirchley, they realised they’d found it.

George and Richard Cadbury were two bearded, sharply-dressed young businessman (they wouldn’t look out of place in Surry Hills today); owners of a chocolate making business on Bridge Street in central Birmingham. They knew they were standing on the perfect site for a brand new factory.

The brothers inherited the business from their father, John Cadbury in 1861. John passed down a set of Quaker values to his sons that he had channelled into the company– trust, honesty, discipline and fair play. Crucially, his sale of tea, coffee and cocoa offered an alternative to alcohol (teetotalism being a key feature of the Quaker lifestyle).

Like their father, George and Richard sought a purer form of cocoa in a market where manufacturers used additives to mask the cocoa’s excess of natural fat. While some retailers of the age adulterated their goods to cut corners (bakers adding chalk and bone ashes to produce the whitest loaves of bread, and butchers dressing rotten meat with the fat of fresh meat), the Cadburys strove for excellence.

In 1866, the brothers launched Cocoa Essence– a new product that had much of the cocoa butter expelled, thanks to a revolutionary new press from the Netherlands. It was the UK’s purest cocoa, and a bigger site was needed to accommodate an increase in demand (the brothers would later be inspired by Swiss manufacturers mixing cocoa with milk; the iconic Dairy Milk chocolate bar arriving in 1905).

But George and Richard Cadbury had a unique vision. Not only did they want a suitable site to build a chocolate factory, but a model village to accommodate their employees. They dreamed of taking their valued workers away from Birmingham’s fug of dirt and smoke to enjoy the benefits of the countryside. As George declared, “It is unreasonable to expect a man to lead a holy, healthy life in a sunless slum.”

And so, as the two brothers stood in the spot of rural Worcestershire not far from Bournbrook Hall, they knew it would be perfect for their revolutionary vision. Not only did it have good transport links to the nearby railway line, but it was green, spacious and surrounded by clean, fresh air. They purchased the land at auction in June 1878, and construction of the factory and first 16 cottages was completed in autumn the following year. They christened their new village ‘Bournville’, after the local Bournbrook stream, adding ‘ville’ (French for ‘town’) for a suitably idyllic touch.

The new factory was a big step into a brighter future–full of large, airy rooms lit by skylights in the roof, with bigger windows for more natural light. There were rooms for roasting, grinding, moulding, storing and packing. Everything was to accommodate the manufacturing and distribution of their chocolate on a grander scale.

And the accompanying semi-detached cottages were a huge improvement on central Birmingham’s overcrowded streets, narrow passageways and back-to-back housing. Each one had front and back gardens with space to grow fruit and vegetables. Behind the houses was an orchard full of apple, plum and cherry trees. And next to the factory was the recreation ground on which Richard and George often partook in a round of cricket with their staff.

By 1895, another 143 cottages were built, each with surrounding gardens. And at the heart of their new town was a village green; a characteristic feature of the English country village, graced with trees, flower beds and winding paths.

The whole scheme represented a monumental shift towards privately purchased land being open to the public, away from exclusive rights gifted to wealthy owners. Richard and George wanted Bournville to stand out as a model village in the literal sense; a template of how to raise the living standards of the impoverished and sick. Today it’s a benchmark for ‘new’ English garden tows that town planners should aspire to emulate.

This is one history lesson that doesn’t tell of gruesome working conditions and corrupt business owners. It was the Cadburys’ fundamental Quaker beliefs that led them to challenge the Victorian era’s poor social welfare and harsh working conditions. These men were not only chocolate makers, but social reformers.

Today, little has changed in Bournville, except for the surrounding land. Bournville’s outskirts have been engulfed by Birmingham’s steady spread of housing estates and corporate buildings, but the town itself still exists as a beautiful country village; a must-visit if you’re ever in the UK. You can stroll down the quaint high street, and past the smart red brick and mock Tudor houses. At the centre of the village green is the charming Rest House and Visitor Centre, selling a range of gifts and local arts & crafts.

Better still is the original Cadbury World, where you can peruse the exhibits and learn about the company’s rich history. An impressive reconstruction of John Cadbury’s original shop is a highlight, along with the slightly bizarre ‘Cadabra’ ride which may remind you of the similarly freakish ride at Duff Gardens in an episode of The Simpsons.

Although Cadbury is now owned by an American company, the factory at Bournville is still active. As part of Cadbury World’s exhibition you can enjoy free samples at the packaging centre and sip on fresh, liquid chocolate at the demonstration area. It’s best to visit in the spring when the bewitching whiff of cocoa butter mingles with the scent of flora in the air as you flop on the recreation ground in a chocolate-induced coma.

What’s certain is that the brothers’ model village is a fairy tale fully realised; a literal representation of hard work, fairness and equality at a crucial turning point in social history. The Cadbury name will continue to echo through history as a name representative of quality, a result of the family’s admirable Quaker beliefs. Bournville’s Quaker meetinghouse in the village green is a fitting reminder of how the town came to be.

Director Kim Carpenter discusses NIDA’s A Dream Play

Final year NIDA students are starring in Caryl Churhill’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1901 play A Dream Play at Kensington’s Parade Theatre this week. Directed by Helpmann Award winning director Kim Carpenter, the play uses surrealist elements to tell the story of Agnes (Emily Davison), a Goddess who falls from the heavens to experience the troubled lives of humans on Earth.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Kim Carpenter regarding NIDA’s production shortly before Monday’s opening performance.

Jonathan Chadwick: How does Caryl Churchill’s version of the play differ from Strindberg’s original?

Kim Carpenter: Her version is written in a different period so it’s a contemporary adaptation. It’s more economical; there’s not as much text as in Strindberg’s original, although the text is very faithful to the characters and the intentions of Strindberg’s original play. We never know what the original is like because we see it through English translations. But Churchill’s version is faithful, yet contemporary in its elegance and economy. At the same time she’s taken out any stage directions really. So if you were to pick up her version without knowing the original Strindberg you could well struggle because there are 11 episodes, and you don’t really know the beginning and end of each; you have to decide that yourself by filling in the gaps with your own interpretation and imagination.

JC: How loyal a production is it and how much room was there for interpretation on your part?

KC: There are gaps in the text on the page that [we had] to interpret and bring to an audience in a seamless production. In a sense, that actually appealed to me from a visual [point of view]. We had a one week workshop earlier in the year, with the nine actors who play 40 characters, and we improvised on a lot of the ideas to find links within the work. I think we’ve successfully achieved that. The first reading with the actors took 53 minutes. This is an 80-minute production, so there you can see the difference.

JC: So there was room for you to fill in the gaps?

KC: Yes, in a good way. There’s a lot of absurdity in the piece. It has a reputation for being predominantly dark, because it is a journey towards finding out the meaning of life. And of course there are no answers. However, we’ve been with a young enthusiastic company of final year NIDA students. We looked for the light in the dark. And there’s a clue in the piece where Agnes says “Light, dark, light, dark.” It’s a bit difficult to give you the context, but basically that’s how the production goes – just when you think ‘Oh, how sad, how depressing’ (although I don’t think it’s at all depressing, it’s turned out to be quite life affirming), it does a quick swerve into something that’s quite absurd and very funny, because life is absurd and very funny at times, even in tragedy.

JC: That was something else I was going to ask – Strindberg was going through some hefty psychological trauma when the play was written. Does NIDA’s production reflect that? Is it disturbing?

KC: I think there are some things in the text that people could be disturbed by, but ultimately I don’t think it’s a disturbing production. I think there’s a lot of tenderness in the piece. When Caryl Churchill read the original Strindberg and was commissioned to do this adaptation, she found that as well. It’s not until we really investigated it that we also felt the tenderness and beauty. When I asked the students of their individual reading experience before the project, I expected a lot of them to say that they didn’t understand it, or found it obscure, or depressing. But the word that was most commonly used was ‘beautiful’.

JC: Did your own experiences of dreams and the subconscious influence the production?

KC: Not really. We talked about it and I felt that if we started to go down the road of individuals’ dreams, we could have ended up in a mess. I felt that with this text (and combined with the fact that everybody had already read Strindberg’s original), we had enough material to go with. It was more important to explore the characters that existed in the piece and their dreams, rather than impose personal dreams that would be tenuous to the storytelling.

JC: How is Emily suited to the role of Agnes?

KC: She’s a natural beauty; tall, with long black hair and a beautiful open face. She’s also a country girl, and maybe that contributes to her demeanor. She has natural feeling in every way, and truthful quality. We also explored looking for the child-like quality, because there’s a lot of reflection on childhood in the piece, so we talked about other heroines, like Alice in Wonderland, who went from another place into a fantasy world. So in Agnes – a Goddess who has come to visit Earth – there’s a huge heightened curiosity, innocence and naivety in her approach to all the people and their struggles on Earth.

JC: A Dream Play has been referred to as a nightmare to produce. Did you cut or change any elements of the script to make it more practical or easy to bring to the stage?

KC: We added in order to make the piece holistic and a seamless theatrical experience for an audience, and also to make it very accessible, moving and entertaining. So I think that was a major mission. We’re in the big theatre at NIDA, which is a fantastic theatre that has everything that opens and shuts. The designer, together with myself, the sound designer and the lighting designer have all been very involved in making a dream world that supports the actors’ performances. One of the challenges has been technically how to actually fuse all the disparate episodes together as one. We open tonight and I’d say we’re 99% there.

Review: Venus in Fur

Productions of David Ives’ Venus in Fur have garnered both awards and acclaim since its 2010 off-Broadway premier. Until July 5th Scottish director Grace Barnes is bringing the show to life at the Darlinghurst Theatre’s gorgeous Eternity Playhouse.

Thomas (Gareth Reeves) is a smug, sexist theatre director, frustrated after an unproductive day of auditions for the female lead in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, involving themes of gender balance and sadomasochism.

Just as Thomas is about to return home to his fiancee, into the rehearsal hall stumbles Vanda (Anna Houston); she’s windswept, loud and crass, and shows puppy-like enthusiasm. With reluctance on Thomas’ part, they run through the script; Thomas as Severin von Kusiemski and Vanda as Wanda von Dunajew (the former wanting to be dominated by the latter).

Thomas is irritated by Vanda’s comment that the play is basically “S and M porn,” and her apparent ignorance is carte blanche for Thomas to treat her with disdain, at one point pulling her across the stage to where he wants her to stand (you don’t have to be a feminist to hate this guy).

But to Thomas’ confusion, Vanda displays a perfect understanding of the role once in character, almost as if she’s “jumped from the pages.” When out of character, Vanda’s willingness to audition in her underwear suggests a naivety, and her flirty coquettishness is cause for laughs (depending on whether you find that sort of thing funny). Some critics have referred to Venus in Fur as ‘titillating’, although the sexual element is there to illustrate power rather than to arouse the audience.

Gradually, as Thomas and Wanda become more immersed in their respective characters, Thomas’ grip loosens and he struggles to assert himself as the dominant director.

It’s almost superfluous to point out the irony throughout, with occasional hints of acknowledgement of this from Reeves and Houston. Both manage a seamless transition between characters, notable by the switch between American and English accents (of which they display an excellent command; much credit is due to dialect coach Paige Walker). Incidentally, Reeves does an uncanny impression of a young Richard E. Grant while playing Thomas as von Kusiemski.

But Anna Houston’s the star. She spins plates for 90 minutes; playing a role that effectively branches out into two characters, one of which is only subtly alluded to for the most part. Sounds vague? Experiencing it for yourself might answer a few questions…or more likely ask a heap more.

The ending leaves much unresolved, the last image before lights-down representing a satisfying shift of power between sadist and masochist, director and actor, and most crucially, male and female. It’s the unanswered questions that leave a play like this on the edge of your mind for days. Was Vanda just a figment of Thomas’ imagination after an exhausting day of auditions? Was his utter immersion in the story driving him steadily mad? Is it a portrayal of a dream turned nightmare as he found himself plunged into the manuscript’s pages?

Form your own conclusions. It’s Venus in Fur’s deeper layers that makes it complex and ultimately satisfying; not its sexually suggestive surface.

Brazilian barbecue, Sydney

In the last few years I’ve gradually become less inclined to eat out. It was increasingly difficult to find somewhere offering value for money and I came to the conclusion that I could cook a healthier, tastier meal myself, for half the cost.

But that was then. Recently, I discovered one of Sydney’s Brazilian barbecue hotspots that restored my faith. At Churrasco on William Street you can eat as much as you like for $44, choosing from a vast selection of meats that are cooked over an open flame and brought to your table.

My friend and I stepped through the glass doors to be met with wafts of wood, smoke and animal fat. A buzz of joyous conversation in the air like a mini street festival was evocative of Brazil itself.

Once we were seated on the low wooden benches, bowls of black beans, rice and salsa were distributed. It took great restraint on my part not to fill up on these.

I realised the importance of pacing myself if I wanted to sup on Churrasco’s entire array. I needed to chew slowly, drink plenty of fluid and not go overboard on the portion sizes. If you’re not careful, a night at Brazilian barbecue could only last 15 minutes.

After a short wait, the floodgates opened and a continuous stream of waiters and waitresses came by our table, offering a rich variety of charred meats. I chowed down chunks of peppered sirloin that tingled on the tongue and melted in the mouth, pork belly sweating with fat and chorizo sausages that popped with salinity.

Their selection is vast and generally focuses on beef, chicken and pork cooked with a variety of generous glazes and marinades–orange and mustard seed; sea salt and fresh lime; lemon and oregano. My taste buds shudder in unison at the memory.

Better still are their legendary cheese balls–soft, doughy spheres with a stringy cheese filling. Although there are some vegetarian-friendly delights on offer, over two-thirds of the menu items are meaty, and the fact that vegetarians have to pay the full $44 suggests they might be better off elsewhere.

But personally, I’d be happy to dine solely on their cheese balls, grilled pineapple slices and golden deep fried bananas that give a glass-like crunch.

After 30 minutes, I experienced an unnerving juxtaposition: on the one hand my brain was eager to keep receiving joyous brainwaves of delight triggered by the seriously flavoursome, highly seasoned food. ‘I must get my money’s worth…I must try everything on offer…’ I thought to myself.

But on the other hand, my stomach was struggling. My jaws ached and I felt as if there was a queue of meat chunks waiting to be digested all the way up my gullet, so that if I turned my head towards the floor, food would actually fall out.

It was the moment I’d dreaded. My stomach was full to the brim, while my mind screamed out for more food. Rather than worrying about not getting enough food (as is the case with most other restaurants), I was sad that my limited stomach capacity had gone against me.

Churrasco have a system where each diner is given a small piece of card, green on one side to indicate to the waiters that the diner wants food, and red on the other to indicate the diner is replete (full to the point of serious stomach pain). With some sadness, I turned my card over to red.

But still the staff approached our table with their gigantic skewers. I felt bad for turning them away, most of whom were genuinely friendly and presented each dish with enthusiasm. I made sure I declined their offers with an apologetic and equally friendly smile in return.

The only slight drawback to the whole experience is that it’s difficult to construct your ideal meal. I would’ve liked a bit of greenery to accompany my meat heap, but by the time the salad came round to us I couldn’t even manage a wafer thin leaf. Likewise I was too full for the chicken hearts, which I’d been told were “squidgy and salty”.

Whatever comes your way is just the luck of the draw. Traditionalists may be bothered by this set up, but the unknown is part of the excitement.

I’ve tried so very hard at vegetarianism, but Brazilian barbecue makes it so much trickier. Meat is my guilty pleasure, and I left the restaurant with mixed emotions; part guilt, like an ex smoker who’d just chain-smoked fifty in half an hour.

But mostly I felt happiness. I was happy because for once, I’d got one up on the proprietor. I ate more than my $44 worth. This was just as satisfying as a full stomach.

Review: The House on the Lake

Head to the SBW Stables Theatre this winter for a thriller bristling with high tension. Aidan Fennessey’s The House on the Lake, directed by Kim Hardwick, is this year’s champion in independent Australian theatre.

Criminal lawyer David (Huw Higginson) should be meeting his wife at a house on the lake to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Instead, he wakes up in a stark hospital room, unable to remember anything from the day before.

It’s up to psychologist Alice (Jeanette Cronin) to coax information from David, hampered by his short-term memory loss that effectively starts each session from scratch: “I’m Alice. I’m here to help.”

As the play develops, the audience is fed on crumbs of clues. A picture is gradually formed regarding why David is there, how long for, and the events at the house on the lake. Two minds with a mutual appreciation of Edgar Allan Poe prove a perfect match-up. As dark secrets are uncovered, the psychology of lying, trust, betrayal and revenge are questioned.

English actor Higginson displays an astonishing range as David, while Jeanette Cronin adroitly combines a psychologist’s professional demeanour with a quick wit. Both actors’ ability to rattle off an hour and a half of Fennessey’s intricate prose is impressive.

Part of what makes The House on the Lake so enjoyable is the exciting feeling that a twist in the tale isn’t far away. There’s the ever present suspicion that one of these characters is working on a higher plane than the other.

I’ll refrain from getting any deeper, as to divulge any more of the story would be to undermine the entire experience.

The SBW Stables Theatre could have been custom made for Fennessey’s script. The incredibly intimate performance space perfectly conveys the confined hospital room, while the simple furnishings and whitewashed walls lend a suitably clinical feel. The unconventional, angular stage is suggestive of David’s warped psychological well-being.

And the effects department prove that less is more: Martin Kinnane’s cold, schizophrenic lights are superbly matched by Kelly Ryall’s disturbing sounds to convey the time lapses between David and Alice’s fractured meetings.

The House on the Lake is 90 minutes of razor-sharp dialogue ever so slightly tinted with black humour. Most of all, it proves that one setting, two actors and three props can provide as compelling a theatrical experience as any.

Rick Stein talks life, love and food at the Sydney Writers’ Festival

Renowned English chef Rick Stein graced the last day of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at the Roslyn Packer Theatre on Sunday. Interviewed by ABC’s Richard Glover, Rick was speaking in support of his memoir Under a Mackerel Sky, which charts his childhood, his relationship with his manic-depressive father prior to his suicide, his travels to Australia as a young man, and the origins of his famous The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, Cornwall.

Rick’s also owned the successful Rick Stein at Barristers restaurant in Mollymook, New South Wales since 2009 and currently divides his time between Mollymook and Padstow.

Rick delighted the crowd with a series of anecdotes and openly mused on his father’s death: “One of my biggest regrets,” he said “is that I never got to speak to him about his illness…there is always the feeling that we could have done more to help.”

It was his thoughts on mental illness that were most insightful, commenting that he had been unaware of the self-loathing often experienced by sufferers of bipolar disorder, and how “those who commit suicide don’t necessarily think of it as ‘the end’ when they decide to do it.” With astounding honesty he shared with Glover and 800 audience members his father’s last words to Rick’s aunt before he dived off a cliff.

He also contrasted his and his father’s relationship with the ones he now has with his children, quoting his son Jack’s reason for not reading his book: “because it’s about your sex life Dad,” a response that suggests a perfectly healthy father-son relationship.

Rick’s beginnings in the world of work were fairly humble, undertaking a job as a street sweeper because he thought “there was something heroic about it,” and having been influenced by George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. After his father’s death, in the 1960s he travelled to Australia “because of the Australian lifeguards on Cornish beaches who were successful with the girls.”

His love of Australia is clear to see as he fondly recalled his early impressions and how its “confident men” and “pretty girls” offered a sense of opportunity and hope after his father’s death.

Rick was cheekily credited on the Sydney Writers’ Festival website as an Australian, but a key part of his relationship with Australia is how as an English traveller he saw it as a promising foreign land, populated by “charasmatic characters, young, fit and good surfers.” He recalled in his memoir, “We loved the local girls’ accents and their openness. They came from a sunny world more optimistic than ours. I almost got the feeling that people didn’t die suddenly in Australia, let alone throw themselves off cliffs.”

He also recalled how he used the red landscape of the Simpson Desert and “the rock formations rising out of the flat land where the balls of dry, spiky spinifex rolled around in circles” as inspiration for his successful entrance exam for Oxford University, Glover joking that “Australia made him” the success he is now.

Despite his success, he still suggests that being a chef was something he fell into doing after years of misdirection, and is “not particularly good at anything,” to which Richard Glover understandably scoffed. “I went into cooking as a salvation in a way,” Rick once admitted.

But there is a sense of serendipity as to how Rick found himself a successful career as a chef. Having left Oxford University in the mid-1970s, he took ownership of a discotheque in Padstow that was stripped of its alcohol licence. To this day Rick is unsure whether it was a clerical error on the part of the police that left him with a licence that still permitted the serving of food.

The restaurant’s reputation had sky-rocketed by the 1980s, and Rick recalled his surprise at being asked to write his very first cookery book, crediting himself as ‘Richard Stein’ because “it sounded so much more upmarket.”

For decades Rick Stein has graced our television sets with his gregarious nature, unquenchable appetite and boyish enthusiasm. He’s not just a chef; he’s a leading food journalist, travelling the world for inspiration. He documents culinary revelations and unearths ancient techniques by immersing himself in the world of small scale, high quality produce; local markets, street stalls and honest, family based suppliers.

He’s also an English treasure; a humble, affable gentleman who I’ve grown up watching, and as I sat in the Roslyn Packer Theatre, his comforting voice evoked images in my mind of rolling green valleys, smoking open grills and fish and chips set against a backdrop of aqua-blue sea and frothy surf.

It was a pleasure to see my own personal food hero, still going strong as he pushes 70 years old. His programmes are treasure chests of cookery, culture, travel, literature and history, and considering the amount of time he spends Down Under, hopefully it wont be long before a show charting Rick’s gastronomic tour of Australia is commissioned.

Land of Hops and Glory

As an Englishman living in Sydney, I can’t count the amount of times I’ve been asked about our flat, warm beer. It’s an unthinkable prospect for sun-bronzed Australians in need of a cool thirst quencher, but for English beer the warmth and flatness serves purposes.

English beer has a focus on flavour, better appreciated at lower temperatures. And it’s actually not that warm; the cask containers are just kept at room temperature. We don’t need the refreshing fizz as much as you Australians, so we encourage the extraneous carbon dioxide to escape during the process of conditioning. We like to drink beer, not gas. Many English beers are more about flavour and less about the sensation of bubbles sparkling on the tongue. In the wake of Australia’s recent beer revolution Aussies are getting better at understanding this.

While I was home last year I enjoyed a mini beer tour, stocking up on a selection of southern England’s most flavoursome brews. There’s no better place to start than London, flanked by two of the country’s best breweries- Meantime in the east and Fuller’s in the west.

Fuller’s is operated at the Griffin brewery in Chiswick, close to Turnham Green tube station. Although a fair walk down Chiswick Lane, Willy Wonka’s beery side project awaits on the banks of the Thames. They’ve been brewing for over 350 years and like many British institutions, proudly focus on tradition and a rich history. I stare up at the cluster of Victorian stock brick buildings, elaborate black metal railings and the glossy red Fuller’s sign with the gold griffin atop. England often makes one feel like a time traveller.

The brewery tour is a very reasonable £10, and no area appears off limits as my party are guided past the giant mash turn and fermentation tanks, through the hop room and packaging areas before indulging in a generous range of tasters in the underground bar, surrounded by historical merchandise. After perusing their official shop I adjourn to the Mawson Arms pub for lunch, sipping their gently floral Honey Dew ale.

On another occasion I arrived at Fuller’s to find the brewery shop mysteriously closed. One of the brewery’s workers caught me loitering and seeing my disappointment asked me to follow him into in the main brewery building. Once in his office he gave me two Vintage Ales and two limited edition Imperial Stouts, free of charge! A simple act of kindness from a man I’d never seen before or since made me feel part of the Fuller’s family. I floated back towards the tube station on a high, my faith in humanity restored.

Meantime Brewery was established in 2000, reacting against the UK’s massive sales of tasteless, imported brands. They have a slick, trendy image and provide their own take on some English classics- among them an India Pale Ale that comes mightily close to the hoppy 19th Century original. Tours of the Greenwich based brewery start from £17.50 and include tastings, while two kilometres down the road you can enjoy beers at their Old Brewery pub in the handsome Naval College Gardens.

I departed London from Paddington train station and continued my journey westwards towards Oxford. A tour around the university’s intricately designed honeycomb colleges is best concluded at the ancient Turf Tavern, where in 1963 former Aussie PM Bob Hawke set a world record by downing a yard of ale in eleven seconds. What a champ. They’ve an ever rotating selection of cask beer and colourful clientele- many times I’ve spilt my beer trudging through clumps of scarf wearing students discussing Claudius.

I leave Oxford around 9pm, heading west into the heart of the Cotswolds past lush green countryside and cobbled limestone houses. It’s really worth making the trip out this way; a handful of breweries here rival anything in London, east Oxfordshire’s Compass Brewery for one. Their Symposium is a zesty wheat beer brewed with lemon and ginger; a perfect accompaniment to fresh prawns, eaten al fresco with the summer sunlight glancing off your face.

I purchase 3 bottles of Compass’ Belgian style Torp from an off-licence in Eynsham and retire for the night at a friend’s house.  Its funky yeast creates some crazy flavours after the fermentation stage of brewing- red meat, prunes and chocolate all register before I’m sent into a blissful slumber.

The weather is glorious the next morning so I make a quick stop at Burford’s Highway Inn for some 15th Century ambiance and the Cotswold Brewing Company’s Lager.  Forget the sugary, fizzy preconceptions you have of lager, this stuff is identical to what Tudor Noblemen drank centuries ago.  Its Amarillo and Sovereign hops help create gentle profiles of elderflower and gooseberries, and the carbonation is so low I don’t feel bloated after my first pint. Their brewery is at nearby Bourton-on-the-Water, with £15 a tour covering samples and a gift to take home.

After a quick bus journey I hop on a train at Swindon. To bring the tour to a close I’m meeting a friend in Bath for its stunning Georgian architecture, treasure chest of shops and Somerset’s finest brewery- the simply titled Bath Ales. They stock the cosy Salamander Pub on John Street and the Graze steakhouse in the heart of the city. After hours of shopping it’s here that we enjoy the uber malty Gem bitter and the smooth Dark Side stout to wash down 450g of Chateaubriand, potato dauphinoise and bone marrow gravy. It’s very late by the time we part each other’s company, both supporting food and beer babies.

On the last train home I work out how many bottles I can fit into my checked baggage on the flight back to Sydney. With such a long brewing history, English beers are unmistakably the best on the planet. And the beautiful thing was I’d barely scratched the surface.