Back in the late 1970s, the cheese industry was just that: a commodity-style big agriculture business. Over the past 40 years, however, an offshoot of wholesale cheese manufacturing began to bloom, giving birth to the robust artisan cheese movement we know today. One little shop in London is, in part, responsible for this transformation.
Neal’s Yard Dairy, originally tucked into a charming courtyard in Covent Garden, is widely recognized as one of the finest purveyors of farmstead and artisan cheeses in the world, but its path to getting there started in an unassuming storefront, selling bulk cheeses of unclear origin.
Cheese shop seeks out handmade cheeses
In 1979, recent food science graduate Randolph Hodgson stumbled upon a job in Neal’s Yard Dairy’s fledgling London cheese shop. The dairy made several fresh cheeses as well as crème fraiche and Greek-style yogurt. Hodgson procured additional cheeses from a wholesaler to round out its offerings but found he knew very little about their sources. This made them difficult to sell in the method that the shop employed — offering detailed tastings to customers.
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A farmstead cheese called Devon Garland arrived one day from Hilary Charnley, which was intriguing to Hodgson because now he could put a cheese with a cheesemaker. He went to the farm to learn more, and Charnley suggested other local cheesemakers to visit in the area. Suddenly the door opened up to new opportunities for both Neal’s Yard and farmstead cheeses from the British Isles. He came back laden with cheeses from the Devon countryside and, in the process, learned more about how cheese is made, aged and handled.
From there, Neal’s Yard Dairy grew to include more handmade cheeses from the United Kingdom and Ireland, and the backrooms and bowels of the store became areas for maturing and storing the cheeses. Each cheese was prominently labeled with the name of the cheesemaker and where it was from. Knowledgeable cheese mongers waited on each customer, finding out what they liked and giving them tastes of whatever they wanted to try.
Because the cheeses are properly pampered, the freshness and flavor is unparalleled. “Neal’s Yard Dairy has played a critical role in supporting and promoting fine British cheese,” cheese expert and food writer Janet Fletcher said. “I think of it as a highly reliable brand. Randolph Hodgson has been a tireless advocate for traditional methods and quality, and his influence has been enormous. Montgomery’s Cheddar, Colston Bassett Stilton, Lincolnshire Poacher, Duckett’s Caerphilly … a lot of these classic British cheeses would not be known in the U.S. if not for NYD.”
But Hodgson did far more than just find great cheese made down on the farm. Neal’s Yard Dairy was, and still is, committed to preserving and promoting traditional cheeses as well as improving the public’s awareness and appreciation of them. The goal has always been to create a market for these heritage cheeses and support a livelihood for the people who make them. And it is precisely this model that encouraged others to jump into the artisan cheese business — making, selling or both.
Sue Conley and Peggy Smith from Northern California’s Cowgirl Creamery spent time at Neal’s Yard before they opened their operation. In fact, the first time they actually made cheese was at the dairy. It was 1995, during a visit to learn about all the facets of the business: cheesemaking, retail, aging and wholesale.
“A light went on for us during that trip,” they write in their recent book “Cowgirl Creamery Cooks.” “We looked at each other and said, ‘We could do that too — we can find cheesemakers in California and create a venue where their products can be sold!’ ”
With the increased focus on slow food and the diversification of the dairy industry in many countries because of the low cost of milk, more people are making cheese than ever before. Twenty years ago, the U.S. had about 75 artisan cheesemakers; now they number in the hundreds. Likewise in the British Isles, where a massive artisan and farmstead cheese revival began in the latter half of the 20th century with more creative dairy people hopping on the bandwagon each year.
Neal’s Yard Dairy has encouraged many of these folks and helped them learn their craft. That influence has spread across the pond, according to Fletcher. “The cheesemakers that NYD nurtured have certainly inspired our [U.S.] cheesemakers,” she said.
Cheese lovers visiting England must make a pilgrimage to Neal’s Yard Dairy, a temple to all things that really matter about cheese. Stepping into the shop near Covent Garden (a second store is located at the Borough Market), the unmistakable barnyard aroma of cheese surrounds you, and wheels and wedges of the stuff create turrets and towers on every available surface. Cheese mongers slice tastes of anything you take a fancy to, and the quality and freshness rate among the top taste experiences for any cheeses sampled. The Colston Bassett Stilton, a cheese I’ve eaten often, had a cleaner flavor and creamier texture than I’d ever encountered, and several cheddars sampled were superb.
Although it may be foolhardy to assume Neal’s Yard Dairy is responsible for the explosion in artisan and farmstead cheesemakers in Britain and the U.S., its continued influence on this burgeoning business is undeniable.
Main photo: Cheese at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Credit: Brooke Jackson