British cheese heaven – London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy
Just when you thought I’d stopped crowing about my recent travels and that it might be safe to venture back here without suffering major doses of ugly jealousy – here I go again!
A couple of months before we left, I ran into my friend Valerie Henbest of Adelaide’s Smelly Cheese Shop in the Adelaide Central Market. Knowing my interest in affinage and cheese making, she grabbed me by the arm and dragged me off to meet London cheese affineur Jason Hinds who was in town for a few days. During the course of our brief chat I mentioned that I would be in London in June and Jason kindly offered to show me round his cheese aging premises under the old railway arches near the Tower Bridge – an offer far too good for me to refuse.
Jason is one of the owners behind Neal’s Yard Dairy, a business which has almost single-handedly been responsible for rejuvenating the art of artisan cheese making in England. The business grew from humble beginnings as a creamery run out of some derelict yards in Covent Garden, at the abandoned wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. The Dairy gradually expanded to include Randolph Hodgson, a cheese maker who supplemented his product with anonymous and relatively undistinguished wholesale cheeses. The discovery of a surprisingly tasty handmade sample from a regional cheese maker prompted further research, resulting in something of a cheese making epiphany for Hodgson and an interest in the subtleties and variations of traditional cheeses, cheese making and storage techniques.
Modern techniques for the mass production of cheese (which Jason tells me developed right here in post-war Australia) facilitated the importation of large amounts of cheese into the UK, gradually strangling the small, regional and cottage-based cheese makers, putting them out of business. Since Hodgson’s distinctive cheese discoveries of the early 1980’s, Neal’s Yard Dairy has become something of an incubator for artisan cheese makers, creating a market for products which were all but unsaleable and in danger of disappearing from the tables of British cheese-lovers entirely. They have been responsible for saving many a small, financially-wobbly dairy farm by offering them an opportunity to gain new skills and value-add to their product, encouraging younger producers to try their hand at old skills while at the same time preventing the drift of skilled artisans and the loss of their knowledge.
The early road trips which were taken to visit regional farms and bring back their products to sell, have now grown into a business which supports and nurtures scores of British and Irish cheese makers. The premises have grown to include 15,000 square feet of maturing and storage space under three historic railway arches in Bermondsey, where they have built four temperature and humidity controlled rooms to perfectly age the cheeses. An astonishing 600 tonnes of cheese is aged, stored and packed in these premises 40% of which is exported – most to the United States, but now also to France.
The variety of British cheeses came as something of a surprise to me, as my friend Bernadette and I followed Jason in and out of the various affinage rooms and around the groaning shelves of dairy deliciousness. I had not heard of most of the varieties and was thrilled to be able to the sample cheeses as Jason offered them to us, making mental notes of those that appealed most with the intent of making a few purchases in the retail store down the road. Unfortunately you, dearest Australian reader, are unlikely to get the chance to try these amazing and diverse cheeses as most of them are made from unpastuerised milk – a controversial big no-no here in the land of Oz – unless you travel to far-off shores.
But that is a whole other discussion for another day.