“Wow! Look at all this cheese! I can’t believe you have so many different kinds of Itali…Wait a minute…This isn’t all Italian cheese! I thought Via Umbria was an Italian store! What’s going on here!?”
This happens at my counter a lot. Like, every week. Well, really more like every other day. And I understand the confusion–Via Umbria is, as the name would suggest, an Italian store filled with unique, delicious, and beautiful Italian things. So what’s the deal with the cheese counter?
While it is true that Italians make some supremely excellent cheese, my little counter has been given a bit more freedom and has a wider reaching focus than solely Italian curds. Our goal is to give a platform to unique, artisanal, handcrafted cheeses from all over the world, giving our customers a chance to explore myriad delicious products that they may not have regular access to or even have heard of before.
In this spirit, I’m pleased to announce that Via Umbria will be delving into the wide world of British cheeses this fall by teaming up with famed London cheese emporium, affineur, and exporter, Neal’s Yard Dairy.
I’m thrilled about this partnership for a few reasons. Firstly, and most selfishly, British cheeses tug at my childhood-memory heartstrings. For much of my young life, I spent summers in the English countryside on my grandparents farm, where I ate lots and lots and lots of locally made cheese. I spent many happy hours learning how to milk goats, collect eggs, feed pigs–happy hours that were fueled by delicious farmhouse cheese. Even when I was back home in Chicago, my mum packed many cheese and chutney sandwiches in my school lunches (yup, kids at school totally thought I was weird), and we always had Stilton and port at Christmas. All of that to say, I have a very dear place in my heart for the lovely British cheeses from my childhood, and I’m looking forward to sharing them with my customers.
Secondly, I’m thrilled to be able to give British cheeses the audience that they deserve. When most Americans think of European cheese, they think of cheeses like French Brie, Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano, or Spanish Manchego–the UK, unfortunately, very rarely comes into the picture. To be honest, this is a bit bizarre–one of the most beloved cheeses in this country, Cheddar, originally comes from the UK. Be that as it may, British cheeses remain relatively unknown the US.
Part of that has to do with the fact that in Britain, cheese was traditionally part of a workman’s diet, not something for the rich and influential. Because of this lower status, local cheeses weren’t given the same importance as many of their continental counterparts. For a long time, these cheeses weren’t seen as significant enough to protect or maintain. Thus, with the global rise of factorization and mass production of cheese, traditional British farmstead cheeses were largely pushed aside to make way for cheaper, less flavorful, grocery-store friendly options.
Enter: Neal’s Yard Dairy. Started in the early 1980’s as a small cheese shop in London, Neal’s Yard Dairy has become, quite simply, the preeminent champion of British cheese. Neal’s Yard searches out farmers and cheesemakers, working with them to not only preserve traditional British cheeses – what they call “territorials” – but to improve the cheeses quality, age them to perfection, and expand global awareness of these cheeses. Simply put, they find (and/or help create) the best tasting cheeses that the UK has to offer, and then give them a global stage. They go out and visit each of the farmers that they work with, about 40 in total, on a regular basis in order to both taste their cheeses and to select the best cheeses to mature and sell. Farmhouse cheeses like Cheshire, Caerphilly, Lincolnshire Poacher, and Shropshire, to name just a few, now have a global presence in the world because of the efforts of Neal’s Yard Dairy. What they’ve been able to do for British cheese has been absolutely remarkable.
Our first shipment from London should be arriving in just a few weeks, so please come by and taste some delicious British cheese with me at the Via Umbria cheese counter! It’s a fantastic way to explore the world and get to know some some new and exciting cheeses!”