When most people think of cheese (and, well, food in general) they tend not to think of Britain. In fact, they tend to actively avoid the thought of food in Britain. To me, that’s a mistake. The days of mushy peas and over boiled everything are long gone and what better way to prove itl than to eat (and drink) my way through London. In addition to eating world-class meals and drinking numerous pints of beer, no ‘work’ trip to London would be complete without a stop at Neal’s Yard Dairy- a company that showcases, advances, and promotes a cheese tradition as old and varied as any on the continent.
Neal’s Yard Dairy began as named – a dairy in London purveying milk, eggs, and a small selection of fresh cheeses. After some time in the business, they realized there was a gap in the market in London and they began to seek out hard, aged cheeses to bring into the shop. In order to do this they reached out to small farms and producers throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland and as they built relationships with these farms and farmers their business grew. Nowadays, this is the main focus of their business. The very lucky people at Neal’s Yard spend their days traveling the country and tasting cheeses right at the source so that they can select the best of the best to bring back to London and add their unique touch to their selection by finishing the aging process in their maturation facility.
Their carefully selected cheeses showcase and represent an age old tradition of cheeses including the big names and heavy hitters like cheddar (the OG cheddars from Somerset, England) and stilton, as well as some lesser known (but equally tasty) cheeses from throughout England. Many of these are named after the places they are made, much like a fine wine from France or Italy, and are called “territorials.” Others are more innovative, and create true competition and inspiration for the exploding artisanal cheese scene here in the States.
Visiting their facility was an incredible experience. They’ve just moved into a new space in South London (across the street from a pub, of course) and have rows on rows of wheels of cheese undergoing the last stages before heading out to their retail stores, London shops and restaurants, and (luckily for us) some across the pond. Upon entering the facility we were greeted by the amazing and ever charming Clara Melluish, offered tea and coffee, and then whisked away to visit the cheese. After donning jackets, hair nets, and shoe covers we were led into the storage facility- which was basically just a giant library with floor to ceiling shelves full of cheese. Though the sight is amazing, the smell is the first thing to hit you. A little bit earthy, a little bit funky, and incredibly tantalizing, the scents that come from having that many delicious cheesy morsels in one room was overwhelming in the best possible way. Fortunately we were not just there to look but to taste and taste we did. Row after row, cheese after cheese, Clara guided us through the process of selecting cheeses, bringing them back to age, and how to decide when they’re ready to go off into the world. We learned the differences between aging hard cheeses and aging soft cheeses, we did side by side tastings of two identical cheeses where one was washed in beer and the other was not, and we got to taste a cheese next to its twin sibling made in different size formats. It’s sometimes hard to remember that cheese is a living entity, that it takes in flavors from its surrounding as it’s changing textures from maturing but while you’re standing at the source the incredible magic and art of cheese is undeniable.
Don’t let us have all the fun! Due to all our hard (fun), taxing (exciting), and very serious (very delicious) work, we’re binging over some phenomenal cheeses for you next month. Trust me- you’ll thank us when the delivery arrives because we were able to pinpoint some amazing cheeses that will be close to their peak in flavor, texture, and general deliciousness when they arrive next month. Keep an eye out for our Neal’s Yard Dairy Cheese Board Special coming in April or join us for our April Cheese of the Month Club where we will be tasting and talking about some of our favorites from this trip.