It wasn’t until I visited the Neal’s Yard Dairy arches in Bermondsey that I realised just how important cheese maturation can be. It’s obvious that the recipe and actual process of making the cheese is vital, and that the milk should be of the highest quality, but storing it? I thought that did nothing more than prolong the cheese’s shelf life. However, after being shown various maturing rooms, each with their own distinct microclimate – wet and warm, cold and dry, cool and humid – it soon became clear that there’s a reason Neal’s Yard is known as one of the UK’s best cheesemongers.
The company was founded in 1979 by Nick Saunders, who also set up the now legendary coffee roasters Monmouth Coffee (as well as lots of other Neal’s Yard businesses), and then sold it on to the true champion of Neal’s Yard Dairy, Randolph Hodgson. Initially the dairy was all about making cheese, but that part of the business split off around 1984, as Randolph was more interested in actually selling the cheese and talking to other cheesemakers. Of course, when you buy cheese in you have more than you can sell right away, so you have to learn how to store it. The business evolved from there.
Director David Lockwood has been involved with the British cheese scene for twenty-five years, and has seen first-hand how it evolved into what it is today. Neal’s Yard has been there the whole way, pushing producers to make better cheese and encouraging consumers to learn more about them in its cheese shops. But that’s only half the story – the business matures all the cheeses itself before they reach the counter, and sells them wholesale both at home and abroad to other cheesemongers and restaurants.
‘Cheese is a third milk, a third make and a third maturation,’ says David. ‘Our job is to find the best cheese to bring in and make sure it’s matured in a way that makes it taste better; it’s a constant struggle to figure out what to do with it. Our aim is to simply improve British cheese, and to do this we have to work with people. I think a lot of our success is down to Randolph and his vision for wanting better cheese, working with producers to get them to make something great. If we’re not active in the British cheese world, encouraging producers to improve and educating our customers, then there might not be enough cheese for us to sell. Compared to countries like France it’s still a very young industry, so we need to make sure there’s an economically sustainable industry out there.’