We take cheese very seriously here at Lawson’s and there is always more to learn, so we sent our shop manager, Nico de Villiers, to one of our suppliers, Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. He went to learn more about how they collaborate with British cheese makers, how they mature cheese in their Bermondsey warehouse and how they present it to the public at their renowned London shops.
Nico tells us more about what he learned during his day at Neal’s Yard.
Neal’s Yard Dairy has been at the forefront of the revival of British cheese since it was founded in 1979 so I was hugely excited to have the opportunity to go behind the scenes. I’ve been speaking to their knowledgeable and infectiously passionate team on the phone since they started supplying us earlier this year and it was a privilege to meet them.
In the 1980s British farmhouse cheese was in serious decline, threatened by the standardisation demanded by supermarket shoppers and public health concerns about raw unpasteurised cheese. Since then Neal’s Yard’s Randolph Hodgson has led a campaign to revive Britain’s cheesemaking traditions, working hand-in-hand with dairies around the UK, encouraging producers and educating consumers. Today they work with over 40 British cheesemakers, visiting them regularly and helping them to make the best product possible. They also sell British cheese all over the world.
The art of maturing cheese
My guide for the day was Estelle, who was really generous in her time and tolerated all my questions! Estelle explained that cheeses vary from batch to batch and day to day which is why their sales team are based on the same site as the Bermondsey maturing rooms. For the sales team, each day begins with a tasting and discussion with the maturation team. The plan had been to join them first thing for their tasting but train delays meant I arrived late, so I had a private tour and learned the importance of the maturation process to bring out the best in a cheese.
I had never seen anything like the maturing rooms in the south London railway arches! The aim is to develop the best texture, flavour and aroma in each cheese. Some cheeses may want to be a little warmer and drier, cooler or moister - it varies from cheese to cheese - and Neal’s Yard has developed very sophisticated methods for maturing cheese. There are five separate chambers each with a distinct environment moving from dry to moist and with controls to control temperature and humidity. Outside each chamber is a blackboard where notes are kept about the contents and instructions for the maturation team.
I was able to try lots of different cheeses at different stages of maturity, learning first hand how cheeses develop over time. Estelle taught me to taste cheese from the centre, rather than close to the rind, as this is where the flavour is fullest. She also gave me valuable tips on comparing the flavours.
Estelle explained how Neal’s Yard has learned that different customers have different palates and preferences, so by tasting each batch of cheese, Neal’s Yard is able to allocate specific batches to customers. The team also keeps in regular communication with customers about how cheeses are tasting at that point in time, with seasonal changes to the milk for example.
Hands-on at Neal's Yard Borough Market shop
We followed the cheeses' journey from the maturation rooms at Bermondsey to one of Neal’s Yards two London shops in nearby Borough Market. I have to admit I had not visited the shop before and was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of cheese on display - usually about different 40 cheeses a day and up to 70 at busy times like Christmas.
Unlike most delicatessens, Neal’s Yard do not display their cheeses in a fridge but have them out on the counter. Neal’s Yard’s turnover is so high that cheese never hangs around for long once it arrives at the shop. The temperature is kept cool in the shop throughout the year and to maintain the right level of humidity they have cool water running from a shower into a barrel in the corner of the shop. This ensures the cheese does not dry out.
I wasn’t here to just observe or even shop. Estelle soon put me to work and what better way to learn than getting hands on! I was shown two different methods of wrapping cheese, essential in a shop environment like Lawson’s, to prevent the cheese drying out. The “Glass wrap” technique is used for larger cheese, covering the front tightly in cling film but leaving it open at the back so that the cheese can breath rather than sweat. The “Cellophane wrap” is used on smaller cheese and I was set to work wrapping what felt like hundreds of small cheeses including Suffolk's St Jude and the awkwardly shaped Dorstone. It was painstaking and fiddly work but the more I did the more confident I became. It was a great skill to learn and I have been busy showing the rest of the Lawson’s team how to wrap our cheese so they are well cared for and well presented.
Discovering new cheeses
Of all the cheese I was lucky enough to taste during my day at Neal’s Yard, my favourite discovery was Sinodun Hill. This is a strong creamy goat’s cheese with a lingering flavour. I brought some back to Aldeburgh for the rest of the team to try and everyone loved it. We have made it our Cheese of the Month for August. You can read more about Sinodun Hill on our Cheese of the Month pages and pop in to Lawson’s to have a taste.
My day at Neal’s Yard was incredibly informative and inspiring. I learned so much that we are now starting to put into place at Lawson’s. I would like to pass on my huge thanks to Estelle and all the team at Neal’s Yard who made me feel so welcome.
Thanks to Neal's Yard Dairy >