ur main aim is to keep in close contact with cheesemakers on one hand and customers on the other and above all to be in very close contact with all the cheese passing through our hands. We visit some cheesemakers very often; I select our cheddars by visiting the West Country every eight weeks and tasting through young cheese to select the batches that will be matured on for us. Apart from trying to find the best cheese available this is also when the cheesemaker can get a sense of how their cheeses are being received by customers.
Many of the cheeses we buy are either matured on the farm or in our own maturing rooms in Bermondsey which are in brick railway arches under the main line from London Bridge to Dover. The insulation provided by the venerable Victorian brick work helps us maintain good conditions for the cheese: humid and cool. A team of five take care of the cheese, turning the cheeses and sometimes brushing or washing them until they ripen.
The mature cheese is sent out to our own shops or in our own vans through London or by trucks all over the world. But our job doesn’t stop there as a carefully selected and perfectly ripened cheese can suffer in transit, at its destination so we do our best to keep in contact with customers to ensure all is well.
In the late 1970s Nicholas Saunders set up a few businesses in Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden. At the time, the area was derelict and rents were pretty cheap as the wholesale fruit and vegetable market had moved out to south London not long before. Nick set up the Neal’s Yard Wholefoods
Warehouse, Neal’s Yard Remedies and Monmouth Coffee Company.
In 1979 on July 4th, Neal’s Yard Dairy opened selling Greek Style Yoghurts, Crème Fraiche and fresh cheeses. One of the cheesemakers was a youthful Randolph Hodgson, fresh from his food science degree, uninspired by the career route most food scientists were taking and looking for a job to tide him over until he worked out what he wanted to do. Luckily he found making and selling cheese fascinating and a couple of years later, Nick Saunders asked him to take over and become owner of the Dairy.
Even before owning the Dairy, Randolph had started buying cheese to supplement the ones they made on site and initially he did what
everyone else did and went to a wholesaler. The cheeses that arrived were fairly anonymous and compared to the detailed knowledge Randolph had of his own cheese, he knew very little about their provenance or why they might taste different from one delivery to the next.
The way Randolph sold his cheeses (and what’s become the basis of how we sell today) was by tasting with customers, asking what they thought and finding out what they liked. It was very difficult to sell these new cheeses, knowing so little about them.
One day, a cheesemaker called Hilary Charnley sent in a sample of her cheese Devon Garland. It was sweaty and wrapped in plastic, but still tasted good. More exciting still was the thought that there was a real person, not a machine producing this cheese. Randolph went to visit her farm in a battered old Citroen 2CV, and at her suggestion also visited other farms in the area. He returned laden with cheese; the 2CV practically overturned by the weight of it. Not only that, but through talking to the cheesemakers and watching cheese being made, he had discovered how to learn about cheese and begun to realise how all those similar-looking cheeses lined up in rows on storeroom shelves could vary so dramatically in the way they tasted.
With learning about variation came selection, and with selection came an interest in how to mature and store cheese correctly. The more he learned about selection and storage, the more it became evident that we were running out of space in the shop at Neal’s Yard and that the environments needed for maturing cheese was not neccessarily ideal for fresh cheese.
In 1986 Neal’s Yard Creamery was started as a sister company to continue making the fresh cheeses and yoghurts out at Ide Hill, near Sevenoaks. In 1990, Charlie Westhead, who had been working at Neal’s Yard Dairy selling, maturing and collecting cheese from the farms, decided to try his hand at making cheese. He took over Neal’s Yard Creamery and still runs it today, at its current location on Dorstone Hill, overlooking the Wye Valley in Herefordshire.
Charlie continues to make our Greek Style Yoghurt, Strained Greek Yoghurt, Perroche, Goats Curd, Finn, Ragstone and Dorstone. Since moving in 1990 he has expanded the dairy to allow more maturing rooms and has set up a windmill to provide electricity and a willow bed system which filters and cleans the waste water through beds of willows, reeds and wild orchids.
Meanwhile in London, we moved out of our shop in Neal’s Yard in 1992 and into 17 Shorts Gardens where we still have a shop. In 1996 we opened in Borough Market in what we intended to use as a packing and maturing site for hard cheeses. Before we knew it, people were coming in off the street asking to buy cheese and it became a shop. Finally, 2 years ago, we rented 3 railway arches in which we’ve built 4 temperature and humidity controlled maturing rooms for our soft cheeses as well as a hard cheese storage area and room for us to pack our wholesale orders.