NEAL’S YARD DAIRY: UNDERNEATH THE ARCHES
If you have a conversation about cheese in the UK, it can’t be more than a matter of moments before someone mentions the name Randolph Hodgson and then the name of his company, Neal’s Yard Dairy.
There would be little or, indeed, any exaggeration to suggest that, without the single minded determination of Randolph, there would be few cheeses of any note being prepared in the UK at all.
Over the last twenty years, he and his growing team of enthusiasts have helped build up not only the reputation of British cheeses at home and abroad, but also the number of people making cheese to the extent that they now number in the hundreds.
When I encounter, as I have already on EAT MY GLOBE, cheese makers around the country, the respect for Neal’s Yard and what it stands for is tangible in their desire to make sure that they don’t let him down.
For my own part, I have loved NYD since the first time I walked into the original shop, just of Covent Garden, as a callow late twenty something and had tastes of about 10 cheeses offered before I could mention the words “ Dairylee Cheese Triangles”
It was one of those epiphinal moments. A moment, like taking your first sip of a truly great wine, that stays with you and changes the way you think about a certain food forever. That one visit has probably cost me thousands of pounds in the last ten years and I know I am not the only one.
Their two stores are among the first places that I send any visitor, new to London, to and few come away disappointed.
The secret of their success? Well, the quality of the cheese is paramount, but that doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t get people to taste the stuff and this is where Randolph and his crew get it spot on again.
The level of training at NYD is pretty impressive. But it is not a wrote “this cheese comes from X and is made by Y” approach. The staff get involved not just with the cheese and the variations in its production, but with the makers too who they often go to visit. Because of this, there is a level of enthusiasm that is not matched by any other retailer I can think of in the UK and, perhaps, only by the good people of Zingerman’s (also on my list to visit) in Ann Arbor.
It was because of the enthusiasm of one of their staff, Lucy, that I was able to fulfil one of my biggest hopes for the trip visit the Neal’s Yard Dairy maturing rooms in the unlikely setting of three former railway arches in Tower Hill.
I bumped into Lucy at one of the monthly food fairs on Whitecross St. She was, unsurprisingly, handing out cheese from a big block to any one who was passing and I stopped for a taste, well of course I did.
We got chatting and she mentioned the maturing rooms and said there was now way I could Eat My Globe and not see them. Who was I to argue?
She scribbled the contact details of the people in charge of visits on a bit of paper and then scurried off to chat to someone else. Me? I rushed home and, the first thing I did was rocket off a mail to the good folk of NYD
There was no guarantee that they would let me be part of a visit. They are usually for customers only and, although free, are so popular that they take a credit card reference in case of no shows. Like everything else to do with Neal’s Yard, they do these things properly.
Fortunately, my luck was in. I explained what I was doing and when the book was to be published and the next thing I knew, an invitation was winging itself me-wards by e-mail and, a week or so later, I found myself walking through some of London’s nether regions before finding myself uscathed underneath the arches.
Neal’s Yard Cheesemonger, Chris George is in charge of the trips and you could not ask for a better guide. His passion for his job is tangible even when he has to show strangers in disposable hairnets around his sacred ground. It must be an interruption to his proper working day. But, if it is, he does not show it.
First of all, a potted history of the company and their arrival at the arches which, made of brick, are as close to caves as you are likely to get in the Tower Hill region. It’s all interesting stuff, particularly when Chris talks about the only four cheeses that NYD store that are not sourced from the UK. Can you name them? Sure you can. Parmigiana, a brie de meux, their sensational barrel aged feta and a comte . All the others, all from the UK.
Like so many industries, British Cheese making suffered from nearly twenty years of rationing where the only cheeses that could be legally made for sale were hard cheeses such as Cheddar which kept for longer and were easier to transport. Over time, people became used to the vacuum packed blocks of nothingness that are only just disappearing from our shelves and it has been God’s own task to persuade the Great British public to come back to the real thing.
It has also been hard to persuade new cheese makers in Britain to take challenges and this is where Neal’s Yard comes into its own. The level of support they give to suppliers large and small is unparalleled in any industry. In many cases, with new cheese makers, they commit to buying every cheese made, good and bad, to provide the new business with guaranteed income as they grow and learn their craft. Add that to regular visits from the experts at NYD and a genuine passion for seeing a new product develop and get to market and you can see why they are held in such high regard.
After the brief introduction, it was on to the fun stuff, a tour of the maturing rooms. A row of chilled walk in cabinets kept at different temperatures to control the aging process.
Chris George is a real cheese monger. He has his own favourite mould and everything. I can’t recall what it was called but it has enough letters in it to make any opponent throw a Scrabble board up in the air and storm off in a sulk. He has to take people around the arches twice a week and must be dying inside sometimes when faced by people like me who don’t know their flora from their bacteria and who say things like “ugh, it looks off” when presented with a cheese developing a nice mould. But, if he is withering inwardly, you don’t get a glimpse. Ever the professional, you would think this was all new to him.
As we wandered, we tasted. God we tasted. We tasted young, we tasted old, we tasted ripe, we tasted immature, we tasted hard, we tasted soft and all points inbetwee. And, it was good.
The majority of farmhouse cheeses in the UK are based on French originals. Some are good, many are getting better all the time. But, there is one area where we continue to hold sway and, at the end of the tour, Chris took us down to a series of cavernous racks filled to the gunwhales with enormous wheels of God’s good Cheddar.
As Chris explained, you can actually make a cheese anywhere in the world and call it Cheddar. It is not geographically protected. The reason being that the word Cheddar is a verb as well as a noun being a process called “cheddaring”
In true NYD style though, they have created a protection of their own and only sell three Cheddars all of which are from the right region. They sell other cheeses made in the Cheddar style, the most famous of which is the excellent, Lincolnshire Poacher. But, if you go into either of their stores and ask for the real stuff, you are presented with a choice of three. Westcombe, worthy of note because the owners took the risk of moving from the industrial production of block cheese back to making the good stuff. Keen’s, perhaps the oldest of the three and, of course, the mighty, Montgomery, a cheese so wonderfully, powerfully sexy that you want to rent it an apartment and visit it at weekends.
We tasted them all and, while the others were great. The Monty deserves its place at the top of the tree. A mineral crumbliness leading on to a mouth covering spread as the cheese dissolves in the mouth and a length of taste that stayed with me through most of my afternoon meetings. Such a thing of beauty that even just writing about it now makes me want to head out and buy some.
Before we finished, we sampled Neal’s Yard’s own first attempts at making a cheese for itself. Now that may surprise you. Certainly, they work hard with the suppliers on the recipe for the cheeses they bring in and certain makers will make different batches for NYD than, say Waitrose whose needs are very different. But, until recently, they had not made a cheese themselves.
Well now, you have Stitchelton. The name is taken from the original name for the town of Stilton. Chris was keen to point out that this was not Stilton though. They can’t call it that because it is made from unpasteurised milk where as, by definition, Stilton is made from treated milk.
They still have a way to go, but, as with everything else they do, I can see this being a success as they aim for a darker, richer flavour than Colston Bassett
And, that was the end of the tour. We deposited our hairnets in the bin which was a shame as I have become increasingly fond of these hairnet moments as I travel the globe, and Chris went off to get on with his proper job.
There were only three other people on the tour with me all from that rather splendid online farmer’s market Natoora. We all agreed that, as two hours on a blustery Thursday morning in Tower Hill go, it was one of the best.
Since my visit a week and a half ago, I have spent nearly £75 in Neal’s Yard Dairy. What can I tell you? It’s an addiction and I am in no rush to be cured.