The care, the touch. The everyday job to age a perfect cheese. An insight into Neals Yard Dairy
The care, the touch. The everyday job to age a perfect cheese. An insight into Neals Yard Dairy.
What is the story of the company and the philosophy?
The company started in 1979, so this year is the 40th anniversary. It was born in the courtyard of Neal’s Yard, where we were there until 1992. Neal’s Yard Dairy selection, mature and sell farmhouse cheese from the UK and Ireland. Randolph Hodgson was the founder who transformed the concept and consumption of cheesemaking in the UK and Ireland. We were born from a little shed of space into the shop that exists now: were there was the entire operation happening. Soft cheese maceration was happening in the basement, and most of the hard cheese was matured on the shop floor all around you, and then we retailed from there, and the wholesale and export started there, and it was not a big place. So now it’s just retail, but everything just started from that little shop. In 1996 we moved to Borrow Market, maintaining the Covent Garden space too, but the new place was huge. Initially, it was just maceration cheese, but very quickly, it transformed in a mixed space, and we kind of grew there. In early 2000 we moved to drawer street in the railway arches: we had a similar sort of set up, one arch that was our office and then all the maceration happened on the other side. Finally, two years ago we moved here, in the heart of London, in Bermondsey.
The idea initially came from a small group of young man, who had variously interested in cheese. Nobody knew what they were doing, and this fits into who we are now in some ways. They were making cheese back then, to try. The idea of making decisions and talking about the flavor is still much a part of who we are now and how we sell. When you walk into our shops, our welcome is with some cheese and a knife, it is a way to say “Welcome to our shop, try this.” Some costumers have been buying cheese from us longer than I’ve been alive and know the cheese better than I do. Every week the sales team walk through the maceration area and taste everything, so we understand the difference and how cheese is transformed even day by day, and we can tell the customer exactly how it is. It is a fundamental part of how business operates. What happened is that back then, our cheese production was not enough to sustain the business, so we needed to buy cheese, and this part of the story illustrates a bit more of who we are now. At that time, the English cheese- farmhouse cheese was not in a particularly strong place, because of the war and the expansion of industrialization coming through. All this aspect, for various reasons, devaluated the farmhouse cheese industry in the UK. So, if you were producing X amount of liters but you only had a home for half of that, you would transform it into cheese, rather than waste it. Now you can sell all of your milk without necessarily turning into cheese. During the war, there were producers and farmers forced to produce a certain type of cheese that was more commercially valuable, shelf-stable, to help feed the soldiers, and a lot of producers didn’t go back to make cheese.
Some cheeses have had hundred of producers making that style of cheese (raw milk farmhouse made traditionally), but today it’s just one family, one producer making it. So those cheeses produced in that way is extinction, doesn’t exist anymore. Forty years ago, you had a sort of centralized agency where you could buy cheese from there: you would get one type of cheese, there was no distinction. The only difference was that they were numbered. I guess that our founding director Randolph Hodgson, started realizing the differences between the number and cheeses becoming more curious and let him get in his car and traveling to these producers. Once he got there it was a different thing; it’s not about commercially mass-produce, but they were doing something different, and we should have celebrated that! I don’t want to say we are responsible for the renascence of the small producers- says laughing- but we played the role. It is one of the reason why you can talk about the product and producers and not in an anonymous way because we put the highlight on the producers. That is what we do today. We became a bit more professionals, but that philosophy and mindset still exist very much today. When we talk about what we do today, we like to break into 2 major categories: we are selectors of cheese and maturers of cheese before sales. A combination of staff will visit the majority of our producers on a monthly bases, selecting what they want to bring here.
How many producers do you work with?
We work more or less with 45 producers, and we sell around 75 cheeses: some producers make multiple cheeses. They mostly are from the UK, Irelands.
How do you decide the producers you work with?
The taste, for sure, is necessary. Then, of course, if cheese is produced in a thoughtful way. It’s also production-driven: raw milk is the preference; handmade method of production. It’s about expressive milk cheeses. We think about the same idea of terroir that you have in wine: we want the land expressed in the cheese, guiding the raw ingredient but not manipulate where you don’t have to.
Which are the steps to perfectly maturate the cheeses?
Step 1: reception
We sell 500 tons of cheese per year more or less: retail is 30%, wholesale is 35-40 %, and 30% goes to export.
This is the beginning of the cheese journey where we have the team called the “cheese shift,” the maceration team.
When you think about cheese maceration, two main aspects impact how cheese mature: temperature and humidity. When we moved here, we were able to improve the control of them though a high technology machine that controls each room from one control panel that keeps track of data.
Step 2: refrigerator-passthrough
It’s a place where a combination of things are happening: the stock for items for the restaurant industry and there is maceration happening here as well of cheeses cold matured. The temperature is below 5 degrees, and the cold means things happened more slowly.
Step 3: maturing room hard cheese
Here much in a more significant way the cheeses are ready to be sold when they come to us, there is maceration that has to be done. A lot of these cheeses will spend most of their time with their producers. So it happened the terroir thing, cheese gets selected by us, come here and spend days or few weeks and move on their final destination.
So, what I think it’s interesting is that age goes into it, but in general, the same cheese made on a different day it’s going to taste different. There are so many variables that can impact the final cheese at the end.
Step 4: maturation room soft cheese
There are five different rooms. Each one has a slightly different temperature. The majority of the soft cheeses will spend some time in the drying room. When you get a young cheese, there is a short amount of moisture that we want to dry. There is a set up here different from the other rooms; we have a chiller and a heater both in the same space. In general, temperature disparity creates moisture loss. So, we artificially create temperature disparity by having two different heat sources. In this way, we don’t want to blow air. When you think about your refrigerator at home, it’s not the best environment for your cheese because it dries the cheese out. So we have a particular system where there are no fans in the room that brings the air gently.
All of these rooms have no wave of temperature disparity, and we have much tighter temperature disparity.
This part gets you a better idea of the maceration that we do: we get young cheese (barely formed cheese in) and see it through until they are ready to be sold and eaten.
Step 5: final step
This is the stock for cheeses before they are sold. This is our last chance to have our hands on what happened to the cheese before it leaves the building. Orders come through here and packed and shipped.
There is a funny one. James Montgomery makes cheddar, and there is another one we don’t’ work with, Marie, the two make the same cheese and same style, of course with different flavors. A couple of years ago, they exchanged the cheeses and let them macerated in the respective maturation space. They matured for a year and came here, and it’s crazy how the Marie’s one, macerated into Jamie spaces, tasted like Jamie’s cheese. These cheeses wouldn’t necessarily be what they are without having spent time in those spaces. If we have matured start to finish, we would have been different cheeses. Hopefully, we improve a bit when they arrive, but on a larger scale, we maintain them. So the point is that It’s much more about the selection process and get the right cheese.
How do producer decide to rely on you?
A lot of these producers are working with us for a long time. The selection we have doesn’t change often. We’ve been doing this from a long time, and we have a reputation: It is not as common in the UK. In Italy or France is part of the process: you have the farmer and the mature. It’s unique here.
Some of the cheese come almost ready; some others we take care of from the beginning.
Some examples of the producers you work with, that are making unique products?
Kirrhams produce Lancashire; they are the third generation making it.
Appleby’s produce Cheshire. They are the only producers traditionally making these cheeses. The name is quite common in England, but none is historically causing them apart from them. They are unique in all of the senses. It’s on us to make sure they are driving that story home.
Where are the countries where you export?
USA is a big market, Europe too, then New Zealand, Asia.
More info on: https://www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk