Hidden way in the heart of Southwark, a London neighborhood a stone’s throw from Borough Market, is a veritable paradise for cheese lovers. For some years now, Neal’s Yard Dairy has been a favorite destination for Londoners who throng the streets of Southwark to shop at Borough Market—another venue not to be missed for anyone in pursuit not only of British but also of Italian Moroccan, Spanish and Swedish delicacies. You name it …!
Neal’s Yard Dairy is an unpretentious place, a far cry from the lore fashionable delikatessens in town, such as Clarke’s in Kensington Church Street, Partidges in Sloane Street or the Pont de la Tour Food Store, the grocery next door to Terence Conran’s restaurant of the same name down on the banks of the Thames. No, Neal’s Yard Dairy is situated in a street where fine shops and restaurants are conspicuous by their absence. Park Street is dominated by a railway bridge and lined with old two and three-story brick buildings that used to serve as warehouses. Neal’s Yard Dairy is an old high-ceilinged depot with a blue sign running its full length. The interior follows suit: the main door—wide open all year round, no matter what the temperature outside is—opens onto a dimly lit ‘cavern’ where you’re suddenly hit by the pungent odor of cheese and the murmuring of the crowds of people inside the shop.
Appearances can be deceiving; despite the modesty of Neal’s Dairy Yard’s, here you can bump into Jamie Oliver or Delia Smith (as you can at nearby Borough Market). The star of the show is Randolph Hodgson, the owner. It’s he who selects the cheeses that are displayed on the spartan wood shelves that cram the walls of the shop, and on the counter where customers are served by assistants always ready to offer advice or serve tastings of new cheeses. It’s he too who decides which organic yogurt or pats of butter to put into the fridge from which customers can serve themselves or which olives to marinate in the wooden barrels by the counter.
Randolph’s passion for cheese began 20 years ago—on July 4 1979 to be precise—just after he’d left university. “I studied Food Science at University,” he explains, “and was unhappy with the mainstream of the food industry. I took a job helping to make cheese.” It was thus that he began buying mass-produced cheese and yogurt from a wholesaler and selling them as a summer holiday job. He soon realized that what he was selling was tasteless, especially if compared to artisan products from small British farms. Randolph thus soon changed his business approach, stopping buying cheese from wholesalers and starting to buy wheels directly from small British artisans. Most of all, he decided to concentrate on selecting and maturing the finest cheeses of the British Isles. This was without doubt more rewarding than buying ready-to-sell cheeses, but it was also riskier. Randolph realized that cheese has an aging period that may vary from quality to quality; he also grasped that the secret of excellent is precisely to understand what that aging period is for each type of cheese. Aging conditions, such as humidity and temperature, are also vitally important. The risks connected with an activity of this kind are thus very high; meaning that it may be hard to imagine what will happen to a form of Caerphilly left to age in given conditions. But if everything works properly, the resulting cheese will have unbeatable flavor, incomparable to that of a pasteurized, industrial cheese. Randolph is thus a regular visitor at farms and dairies round Great Britain and Ireland, where he samples cheeses, decides which to buy and then takes them back to his shop to age and sell them.
There are obviously no hard and fast rules when it comes to selecting and aging cheeses, and artisan cheesemakers themselves often have to make minor variations to the production process. Likewise, Randolph has to follow his cheese with a care and understanding that transcend mere knowledge of the chemical processes that are taking place inside the wheel.
“You also have to understand the animals and the milk.” explains Randolph. “The main point when maturing is to use your senses: look, feel, smell and taste. Notice changes and ask why. The main talent to make cheese is a clear picture of what your ideal cheese is and a passion to try and get to that ideal.” Randolph certainly possesses the talent needed for this kind of activity, but he also has a passion that leads him to look for perfection, to achieve the ideal and share it with his customers. “Understanding the constant variations from day to day made me want to explain this to customers as I sold cheese.”
One of the best cheeses you can buy at Neal’s Yard Dairy is the raw-milk Cheddar, in particular Jamie Montgomery’s Montgomery Cheddar, aged for a period of four to six months, then transferred to Neal’s Yard Dairy for maturing. Not to be missed either is the Appleby Cheshire, arguably the oldest of all British cheeses, which Randolph buys directly from Mrs Appleby’s farm in Shropshire. One of Randolph’s favorites is Daylesford, a pungent Cheddar-like cheese. To make Daylesford, the cheesemakers use a smaller quantity of starter cultures and let the the starter develop for a longer period of time than they do for most English cheeses, giving the final product a distinctive flavor.
Randolph has triggered sort of revival of artisan cheeses, a number of which have twice been on the verge of extinction. The first time was during World War II, when the Ministry of Food (set up in 1939) introduced rationing and centralized cheese production. Most milk was sold to dairies and used for a very limited number of varieties, largely hard, since they kept better and were easier to transport. Thus many of the finest artisan cheeses such as Stilton, Caerphilly and Lancashire, ceased to be produced. Nonetheless, some small artisan producers continued to make cheese—without any help from the government—until the Eighties, when interest for small-scale artisan production revived. The phenomenon was of course positive, but it was also true that small producers were now making traditional cheese without a clear idea of what it meant to respect tradition and without true knowledge of production techniques. Which is why some British artisan cheeses are again endangered. Randolph’s role thus becomes vital for the recovery of tradition and the showcasing of a heritage that would otherwise disappear. Last but not least, with a shop of the caliber of Neal’s Yard Dairy he is rewakening consumer interest in small artisan cheeses.
Neal’s Yard Dairy
6 Park Street, SE1 9AB, London
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7645 3550
Metropolitana: London Bridge
Many thanks to Laura Mason for her kind help.
Silvia Monasterolo is the Slow Food Award secretary
Adapted by John Irving