It’s a typically English day- gray skies, drizzle, and hopeful buds on bare trees as I hop off the bus in Bermondsey, London. I’m on my way to Neal’s Yard Dairy headquarters. Rick Hansult from export and sales has warned me that Google hasn’t yet recognized it on the map and I’m not surprised as I meander my way through a seemingly abandoned archway as a train above rumbles past. Praying I’ve not gone disastrously off course, I turn left and sigh in relief at the gleaming floor to ceiling windows of Neal’s Yard Offices. Rick greets me, and we’re off on his morning export walkthrough. After essentially scrubbing in - the process of putting on a hair net, an apron and switching your street shoes for the ever stylish white welly, we’ve entered the inner sanctum of Neal’s Yard maturation caves. The place where Rick and his team go through their morning rounds selecting and tasting cheese for sale that week in Europe and America.
Cheesemonger box has been invited into this inner sanctum to help select cheeses for the May box as well as catching a behind the scenes look of a company which has led a revolution in English farmstead cheese. Before Neal’s Yard Dairy, the English artisanal cheese market barely existed and was fading in the light of industrial farming and cheaper products. English cheese was quickly losing all connection with the land and the farmers that make these truly unique yet classic, cheeses. Starting in the 1980’s, Randolph Hodgson, founder of Neal’s Yard Dairy, began seeking out traditional farmstead cheeses to sell providing a much-needed market for these struggling farmers. Most thought him to be crazy, cheese, after all, was thought to be better left to France and Italy. Hodgson persevered, encouraging these farmhouse traditionalists to continue to do what they did best-make delicious, raw, entirely English, cheese. By offering traditional farmstead cheese to the consumer, Hodgson revived access and demand for these cheeses. Now, artisan cheeses have exploded in England, almost surpassing France in quantity of farmstead varieties made.
The team is guided by Michael, hard cheese specialist, who expertly navigates the various cheeses and plugs them with a cheese iron, a tool for sampling the cheese without actually cutting into it. Notebooks in hand, they take down the batch number, tasting the proffered cheese, and after a moment start calling out flavors. Porcini, brothy, too dry, “she’ll love that” are just some of the tasting notes they share with each other. Though Rick’s initial answer to my “what are you looking for?” is a quippy, “delicious cheese,” they are seriously looking for specific aspects of each cheese and batch. For America, he explains, he tends to skew for younger cheeses, saying that more matured cheeses don’t sell or travel as well. He’s looking for that ubiquitous “sharp” flavor, those with higher acidity and brighter flavors. His colleague, in contrast, samples an incredibly brothy cheese and pronounces it “perfect for France.”
Neal’s Yard has now become one of the largest exporters of English artisanal cheeses, helping to strengthen a burgeoning movement. They work directly with over 40 cheesemakers in the UK and Ireland, visiting and tasting cheeses at the farm, and hand selecting which ones to mature for sale. They have spent over a decade nurturing direct relationships with farmers who would have otherwise had to give up or capitulate to harmful factory methods. The amount of care put into the land and the products, as well as supporting traditional raw cheese expressions of terroir, are some of the many reasons Cheesemonger Box love to buy cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy. Cheesemonger Box is devoted to supporting organizations like these who are truly revolutionizing the cheese scene and helping farmers support their family, herd, and expression of place.