Adventures in Cheese

A chronicle of my journey to London to work in a well-known British cheese shop.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Once a fortnight one of the Neal´s Yard lorries heads out for the "Southwest Run," a daylong excursion to Somerset and beyond to pick up butter and cheese. Nearing the end of my adventure and anxious to see some farms and meet some cheesemakers, I squeezed my way into the front seat between Colin and Sam to go on last week´s run. We left London at six in the morning in hopes of arriving at Moorhayes Farm in Somerset just after the morning milking. When we entered the drive around 8:30 a.m., we were met with the bored stares of one hundred and eighty Freisan cattle as they moseyed back to the barn.

Inside another Tudor barn, this one re-fashioned for cheesemaking, we found George Keen and his son, Steven, draining the whey from a fresh vat of curd. George scooped up a handful of the junket and offered us a taste. Pure solidified milk, it was a far cry from the complex Cheddar it will become over the next eighteen months. Soft-spoken and serious, George efficiently toured us through the rest of his facility: the room where the curd is milled, salted, and put into molds, where the cheese is pressed and wrapped with muslin and lard, and finally the giant storeroom where hundreds of massive cheddars wait patiently while their rinds develop a carpet of mold. Though the cheesemaking areas were renovated and expanded recently, the Keens´ recipe goes back generations - as the old copper cheese vat in the kitchen will attest.

George had more cheese to make and we more stops to reach, so we grabbed our butter and headed back to the motorway. Sadly, our itinerary did not include a stop at Manor Farm, where Jaime Montgomery makes his hallowed cheddars, but from the road we were able to look up at his majestic home and its surrounding fields. (Stonehenge wasn´t a stop either, but we were able to gawk at it in passing too).

Following a couple of expedient stops for butter pick-ups and a hearty English breakfast, we drove to Village Maid in Riesely where Anne and Andy Wigmore make ewe and cow´s milk cheeses with milk sourced from area farms. Monger Chris George likes to tell people the Wigmores make cheese "in the shed behind their house," which is not much of an exaggeration. All of their cheesemaking, sanitizing, and storage takes place in a few cramped rooms. When we arrived, Andy was just putting the latest batches of Wigmore and Waterloo to rest in preparation for brining.

Compared to the Keens and Montgomerys, the Wigmores are relatively new to cheesemaking. Andy is a former journalist and Anne a scientist who has long studied cheese. They previously had an arrangement with the Duke of Wellington to make cheddar from the milk of his Guernsey herd, but after trials and tribulations over the cheddar they opted for their own cheeses: Wigmore, Waterloo, and Spenwood. The antique cheddar press still remains, however, rusting away in the shed.

With the lorry full, we were on our way back to the Arch - a bittersweet journey for me as it signaled the end of my time at Neal´s Yard.

But, then again, Spain was on the horizon . . .

Friday, December 30, 2005

Feeding Time: Biscuits, Tea, Pasta Carbonara . . .

Staff meal is a gauge of a restaurant's success. It may not show you what's going to the bottom line (indeed it often indicates what's not), but it speaks volumes about staff morale, the culinary talent of line cooks, and the generosity of chefs and owners - all crucial to the maintenance of a happy, healthy restaurant.

So I took it as a good sign that at Neal's Yard much emphasis is placed on lunch and tea. Mornings and afternoons are punctuated with rounds of Monmouth Coffee or Barry's Tea served, on good days, with Duchy Oatcakes, clotted cream and Rosebud Preserves. Lunch at the shop can include whatever cheese, eggs, yoghurt, and bread you desire. Mongers often bring veg or meat to supplement. I've seen some fine meals made with the breakroom hotplate and panini press.

Lunch and tea at the Arch, however, take workplace culinary endeavors to another level. The cheese team breaks for tea around 10 a.m. Someone mans the Dualit toaster and helpings of butter, cheese, and charcuterie are passed around for noshing. Yesterday, the special treat was German-style pork liver sausage which Mary had made - from her own hogs!

(left: Bronwen and Bill in preparation for another multi-course meal.)

Bill can cook a mean meal with a pocket knife and hotplate. Cured pork products and melted cheese are popular in his repertoire, as are fresh pastas and farmer's market veg. For a special occasion cheesemaker visit, he added cooked fingerlings to melted leeks, baby brussel sprouts, and bacon and topped the mixture with a prodigious amount of gooey St. James (see photo above). It may not be a meal that makes you sprint back to work, but it does encourage you to look forward to the next day's repast.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Endless Queue

The days preceeding Xmas were long and busy. The "line down the block" I'd been promised finally appeared and remained, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., until the very eve of Xmas. In anticipation, management had hired a team of grunts, students mostly, to do all the washing, packing, and refilling of supplies. They also called in ringers from the administration and former mongers with decades of experience between them to insure that service never lagged.

With all the extra help, working behind the counter became a fight for survival. Physical space was at such a premium that friendly monger relations at times took on more than a hint of aggression. The successful were those who moved most creatively: wrapped on the smallest surfaces, cut from the most awkward angles, used the till no matter how many stood in their path. The wiliest monger of all was no doubt fellow American, Zach. Zach could use the till blind, wrap in air, and sell like a prodigy. His daily ring typically exceeded everyone else's by 1000 quid.

(Above: Zach in Action)

When the counter crush got to be too much, feeding the queue was a pleasant alternative. I found myself often grabbing a hunk of cheddar and heading to the street where the weather was balmy and the crowd grateful and patient. The annual wait was for many as much of a tradition as the Stilton itself.

When we finally shut (and bolted) the door at 2 sharp on Xmas eve, relief and exhaustion easily transformed into holiday cheer.

(Need I say more?)

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Under the Arch

Down a dismal dark street, between car mechanics, mattress wholesalers, and furniture refinishers, hides Neal's Yard's ripening facility. The warehouse sits beneath the arches of a railway bridge giving it an appropriately cave-like shape as well as a frequent, disconcerting rattle.

It is here that affineur, Bill Oglethorpe, and his various assistants receive cheeses from area farms and care for them until they're ready to be sold. To prevent undesirable bacteria and mold transfer and to provide them each with their optimal climate, soft cheeses are divided into different coolers by type. The delicate goat's cheeses live together, as do the washed rinds with their eye-stinging exhalations of ammonia.

(right: St. Jameses developing in the washed-rind cave.)

The pace at The Arch couldn't be more different from that of the shop. My first task upon arriving was to pat down the white mold (or Penicillium candidum) on the fuzzy soft-ripened cheeses. It feels like suede and one could easily fall into a trance while patting and turning. The rinds tear easily though, so lapses of attention can be perilous. An unwanted mold, Mucor, had also appeared on some of the cheeses. Soft and grey like cat's fur, it too needed to be dampened down.

(right: Cheesemaker Mary Holbrook cares for a shipment of young Dorstones from Herefordshire.)

Hard cheeses are less critical patients. In fact, they are frequently moved about by means of a sporting toss.

(left: Tom and Vio practice the Overhead Crockhamdale Pitch. )

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

What is this paradise . . .

. . . but a tavern of ceaseless gorging and a brothel of perpetual bawdiness."
- William of Auvergne, courtesy of Irish monger cum philosophy student, Diedre.

Our primary job as mongers is to give everyone a taste of every cheese they will buy, may buy, or, if we're really persuasive, would never dream of buying. "Put it in their mouths," is a company motto.

This makes for some very personal service. There's no simple "Cheddar" or "Stilton;" there's a selection of three mature, traditional Cheddars or an assortment of cheddar-like lovelies. For Stilton, there's one: the hallowed Colston Bassett made to a unique NYD recipe. Beyond that there are dozens of delicate young goat cheeses, gooey Irish washed rinds, and soft-ripened sheep's bries.

To match the right cheese with its eater, we ask a lot of questions. These inquiries can, at times, sound strange. "Would you like your goat smelly and hard or soft and smelly?"

Customer response rarely disappoints and often mystifies. One man, upon tasting a cheddar, threw his head back, closed his eyes, and raised his hands as if conducting a symphony at its climax.

His response when he came back to us: "No, not that one."

Saturday, December 10, 2005

A Day at Borough Market

Neal's Yard's other, newer outpost is at Borough Market, a sprawling food market near London Bridge with an emphasis on farm-raised and organic goods. The cheese shop at Borough is bigger and brighter, but on first impression seems to lack the cozy charm of the Covent Garden shop.

On Saturday though, it boasts a raclette stand manned by NYD's affineur, Bill Oglethorpe. From the French "to scrape," raclette was traditionally made by holding a half-wheel of cheese over flame until the top layer melted and could be scraped onto your plate. Bill's acquired a contraption which heats his own swiss-style creation, Ogleshield,until it becomes deliciously brown and bubbly. He then scrapes it over potatoes and gherkins. He also serves toasted cheese sandwiches (featured, by the way, in the New York Times).

The queue went around the block, as did the cheesy aroma.

Below are more photos from Borough Market. This is a small sampling of the many cheesemakers, bakers, butchers, and fishmongers at the market. It was so crowded with Christmas shoppers and tourists, taking good pictures was a challenge.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Midday, yes MID-day, at Neal's Yard Dairy

Midday, yes MIDday, at Neal's Yard Dairy. Posted by Picasa

This is for you Pete. . . .

Maldon Oysters at the Marleybone High Street Farmer's Market. Briny and plump, they put Pemaquids to shame. This is the guy who sold them with his Turbot. Posted by Picasa