Behind the scenes at Neal's Yard Dairy

Behind the scenes at Neal's Yard Dairy

by Tom Shingler 13 July 2016

Tom Shingler gets a rare sneak peek around the famous cheese maturing rooms, before talking to director David Lockwood about Neal's Yard Dairy and the evolution of the British cheese scene.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor at Great British Chefs. After studying journalism and working on national food magazines, he joined Great British Chefs in 2015 and has travelled the length and breadth of the UK to interview chefs and photograph their beautiful plates of food ever since. Tom is responsible for all the editorial output of the website and, of course, is obsessed with everything to do with food and drink.

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.’

David Lockwood
David Lockwood has been with Neal's Yard Dairy since 1991
Soft cheeses
French-style, softer cheeses respond especially well to proper maturation, as the flavours are more pronounced


As David led me around the maturation rooms, it was obvious that Neal’s Yard puts an awful lot of time and energy into figuring out how to get the very best out of cheese. But how does storing cheese in a certain way affect its final flavour? And how did the people at Neal’s Yard Dairy get to be so good at it?

‘We want cheese to express the flavours of the milk used to make it,’ explains David. ‘We have very close relationships with all the producers we work with, so hopefully they send us their best cheeses. We then try and make the cheeses better through the maturing process. This is especially important for the softer varieties that come in young and transition quite quickly into a sellable product. We’re looking for the best texture, flavour and aroma. It could be that the cheese wants to be a little warmer and drier, warmer and wetter or cooler – whatever it is will vary from cheese to cheese. It sounds easy, but it really isn’t; we’ve learnt over time how to do it.’

It’s these years of experience that makes Neal’s Yard the best in the business – after all, the company was there before the recent revival of interest in the artisan British cheese industry. But the learning process lasted for a long, long time. ‘Back in the day when I started, we don’t have the fancy maturing areas we do now,’ says David. ‘We had a small shop which was home to a lot of different microclimates and just observed what would happen to cheese when we put it in different places – does it need to go in a cardboard box, should we cover it with a damp tea towel, perhaps wrap it in cling film. It takes time to work all that stuff out, but once you know what to look for the cheese is very good at telling you what it wants.’

We had a small shop which was home to a lot of different microclimates and just observed what would happen to cheese when we put it in different places – does it need to go in a cardboard box, should we cover it with a damp tea towel, perhaps wrap it in cling film. It takes time to work all that stuff out, but once you know what to look for the cheese is very good at telling you what it wants.

David Lockwood

David is worried about Britain's territorial varieties, as almost all new cheesemakers tend to produce French-style varieties
Neal's Yard
Over thirty-five years of cheese maturing experience means the team at Neal's Yard know exactly how to turn a good cheese into something great


David joined Neal’s Yard in 1991, coming over from the US to learn about maturing cheese once the company began exporting abroad. Over the years, he’s noticed a real shift not only in how people eat cheese but how cheesemakers work, too. ‘When I came over to the UK the British cheese scene was very French-focused but there were a lot more traditional territorial producers, a lot of whom have since packed up which is a big shame,’ he says. ‘People would come into the shop and order a pound of the same kind of cheese every single week because it was just part of their diet.

‘The scene nowadays is much more vibrant and there are so many different cheeses around which is fabulous, but I did love something about the fact that people would just come in and buy a particular cheese because it was simply what they ate,’ continues David. ‘I think that generation has died off, and the new generation is much more eager to experiment, try new things and want a wider variety. For example, at Christmas we sell 100 grams of several different cheeses to a customer, whereas before they would buy a quarter or half wheel of Stilton.’

All this new variety available to cheese lovers in the UK is fantastic, but David showed some concern for the more traditional British varieties such as red Leicester, double Gloucester and Caerphilly. ‘Almost all the new British cheeses to hit the market since I’ve been working here have been French-style cheeses that are quick to mature,’ he explains. ‘With something like cheddar, the cheese needs to be stored for a year before it’s ready to sell, so the softer cheeses are much more appealing from a cheesemaker’s business point of view. French-style cheeses also have much more obvious flavours on the palate; with a hard territorial you need to let the cheese warm up, chew it for longer and allow the flavours to develop, which is harder to do when you’re trying a little piece in the shop. It worries me that these cheeses could be lost forever if we’re not careful – we need more cheesemakers to make traditional varieties to increase competition and in turn quality.’ And after David offered me a taste of three different Stiltons, each matured to perfection but with their own distinct flavour profile, I couldn’t agree more.