For once I took a vacation without making it cheese-related. Well… almost. Since I was in London, I couldn’t resist a tour of the Neal’s Yard Dairy aging rooms.
Neal’s Yard started in the ’70s and from early on, took on the mission of selling, and saving, traditionally made English cheeses. As in the USA, commodity block cheddar was in ascendance and the traditional cheesemakers, some of whom had been family cheesemakers for over a century, were having a rough time. Through their (now) two retail stores, their aging facilities, and their domestic and international distribution network, Neal’s Yard helped create awareness and a market so that traditional British cheesemaking could survive.
Originally, I was going to go along to visit farms with them while they selected cheese. However, the price of earlier plane tickets and the Bank Holiday weekend due to Easter prevented that from happening. I also was offered the opportunity to work at the retail store or aging rooms. I know some of you folks will not believe this but my response was, “Fuck that. This is vacation.”
You can’t question my cheese love, but part of the reason I took a month off work was to let my body heal from cheese-related injury. Cheesemonger’s shoulder, tendonitis in my elbows, a herniated disc from 1996… I worry sometimes that my relationship with cheese is abusive. But when it looks up at me from the counter, with those weepy eyes and come-hither bloomy rinds, well, I can’t resist.
But I did resist getting behind the counter while on vacation. I have some worker pride. However, taking a two-hour tour of the aging rooms sounded like my kind of tourist attraction.
Neal’s Yard’s aging facility is inside an old brick railway arch. Outside it looks like a Quonset hut, but inside, four different small coolers of differing temperatures and humidities, a large room filled with wooden shelves, a cutting/wrapping/shipping area, a large walk-in, an upstairs filled with offices and about $500,000 worth of cheese.
I arrived late to the tour because while I knew that Borough Market was very close to the tube, I hadn’t realized that the Arches was, with a couple of wrong turns, a good half hour walk. I rushed in, got into my cheese room-safe disposable jumpsuit and joined the tour already in progress.
Neal’s Yard gives tours regularly to the trade. Restaurant owners and workers, chefs, grocery store buyers, maybe even food writers. It quickly became apparent to me, that this tour group was not very enthusiastic. It seemed that a fair amount of folks were there because either because the tour represented easy hours, or it was work mandatory. Some people were even refusing cheese samples!
WTF? I was worried that this visit was going to be like seeing your favorite band in their home city and then discovering that the crowd was filled with record company hacks and jaded guest-listers who would show annoyance if you tried to sing along with your favorite songs.
As in any industry that calls for some expertise, until you prove yourself as someone who knows something about cheese you get talked to at a basic level. The tour guide, a very friendly and informative guy, was patiently explaining the difference between raw and pasteurized milk cheese to the group who seemed never to have heard of the concepts before. The group was very quiet. Or maybe it was just early. Or maybe they were just English, I don’t know.
I asked a question about whether the milk of a certain cheese was heated but not pasteurized and I could tell he thought I was slow. My American accent didn’t help. He started explaining the concept of pasteurization again and I interrupted, “No, I mean do the cheesemakers thermalize any of the milk for the unpasteurized cheese?”*
He answered the question (“No”) and gave me the you’re-in-the-cheese-club nod. For the rest of the tour, for better or worse, I was that annoying kid in class who asks all the questions when the other kids just wanna get through as quick as possible. I playfully called bullshit when the tour guide claimed that Appenzaller was originally a British cheese, brought to the Swiss by a traveling monk., I confirmed, at his urging, that the Hawes Wensleydale
is the best Wensleydale made, delicate, creamy and lemony. I responded, to his question, that I couldn’t sell the mild British cheese like double Gloucester because the factory stuff tastes like commodity cheddar and the artisan ones are to bland to command $20/lb. (the Brits grumbled at this).
I felt like the teacher’s cheese pet.
The highlight of this tour, since it was an aging facility, was tasting multiple ages of the same cheese. Blue Stilton, for example, is notorious for not ripening predictably by age; younger cheeses are often ready to sell before older ones. Rough-looking outside does not necessarily mean stronger inside. There’s no way to tell if a Stilton is still chalky until you cut it or use a cheese iron to take a sample. Stilton is traditionally a X-mas cheese, so during December, our walk-in is filled with wheels of Stilton, sorted by our tasting, not by delivery date. Honestly, it’s not an annoyance I would go through for a lesser cheese, but Stilton, especially the Neal’s Yard Colston Basset Stilton is one of the cheese greats: big, pungent, fruity, creamy, and earthy.
We must have tasted 5 different ages, all a week apart and unfortunately none exactly ripe. Then our host told us about the Stilton that they were making themselves. Mostly Neal’s Yard just distributes cheese. They do the aging (affinage) for some folks and make suggestions to the cheesemakers about what the customers want and what the experience of the cheesemongers is with the cheese at the counter, but they don’t make the Colston Basset Stilton, the Hawes Wensleydale or the Montgomery Cheddar. They have, however, just started making a cheese using a Stilton recipe, but using raw milk.
Blue Stilton is name-controlled and only six creameries are licensed to make it. The Neal’s Yard cheese cannot be called Stilton** because it is made from raw milk so they are calling it Stichelton right now, and so far as I know, it is available only in their shops in London. It is awesome. Since it’s a new cheese, and Stilton is a finicky cheese to make anyway, they are still working on their recipe and aging process, but it had all the good qualities of the Colston Basset Stilton, with a more intensity and, at least with these wheels, more creaminess. It’s hard to improve on one of the world’s best cheeses, and you can’t know the consistency of a new cheese for years, but this is certainly worthy of the name Stilton, even if legally it is unrecognized..
Which is kind of funny anyway since some Stilton makers, while claiming Stilton as “The King of Cheese”, have allowed mediocre factory production, waxed rinded cheese, and that horrible white-stilton-with preservative-laden-dried-fruit to use the name “Stilton”. You’d think that since England has only a handful of name-controlled cheeses, they would try not to dilute them. Not allowing one of the best varieties to carry the name because it must be made with pasteurized milk is ridiculous.
Moving on from the Stilton, we got to taste numerous ages of Montgomery Cheddar, Keen’s Cheddar, and Isle of Mull. Montgomery Cheddar is to cheddar what Parmigiano Reggiano is to parmesan: It’s what all the copies are either trying to be, or simply a distant relative using a familiar name. Though prohibitively expensive for lots of folks, (we sell it for about $20/lb.), it is amazing. Earthy, sharp, sweet, intense, crystalline, sometimes blue-veined: when you taste it you understand why cheddar is something to aspire to.
That was pretty much the end of the tour, how can you top Stilton and Monty Cheddar? I was allowed to go back and take some pictures and I promise you, Dear Readers, that in the future I will try to have some people in them. Our tour guide made me take my last one of the Berkswell, an amazing raw, fruity, sheep milk cheese that looks like little UFOs because of this sign:
What can I say besides U-S-A! U-S-A!
*Thermalization is the 3rd way of milk treatment for cheese, neither raw nor pasteurized.. It is heated to kill of bacteria, but not to pasteurization temperatures, in order to retain the bigger flavor of raw milk cheese. Since it is not pasteurized, thermalized cheeses are still illegal to import at under 60 days of age.
**I am unclear whether it actually specifies this in the PDO guidelines (it did not in the copy I saw, but it could have been an overview, not the complete guidelines) or whether the Stilton Cheesemakers Association controls this. I am researching this for curiosity sake.