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Ageing gracefully

Categories: Behind the stalls, Features, News and previews

How, after 40 years, Neal’s Yard Dairy continues to transform the landscape of British cheese

Words: Clare Finney  

On a baking hot day in July 2019, the likes of which we can barely remember, 300-odd people descended upon a 19th century railway arch in Bermondsey. They came from America, they came from next door, they came from the remotest regions of the United Kingdom, and they came in the name of one thing only: British cheese.

Or at least, they were there to celebrate good British cheese—cheese of the sort that 40 years ago either didn’t exist or existed on such a small scale, few Londoners would have heard of it. That we know and love so many raw milk farmhouse cheeses today is thanks in no small part to Neal’s Yard Dairy: the buyer, maturer and retailer whose 40th birthday party this was. “We officially opened in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden on 4th July 1979, so we had the party here in the arches on the nearest Sunday,” says Jason Hinds, the Dairy’s stalwart (he’s worked there 29 years this year) and sales director. “We invited our alumni, our producers, the people we work with—all our extended family, basically.” That said family spans several continents and includes many of our most successful food and drink producers and retailers is just one marker of Neal’s Yard’s influence: even just within Borough Market, alumni include Bill Ogleshield of Kappacasein, Dominic Coyte of the Borough Cheese Company and Jon Thrupp of Mons Cheesemongers.

I asked Dominic what had lured him into their original Covent Garden shop in 1992 and his answer is both revealing and quite simple: “The cheese was stunning. I had eaten cheese before of course, cheddars and even lancashires, but the cheddars and lancashires I had at Neal’s Yard Dairy were unrecognisable from anything I had ever tasted before.” Though his plan was to work there for a year between finishing his masters in philosophy and returning to get a doctorate, Dominic ended up staying—then, a decade later, setting up Borough Cheese Company.

Religious-like zeal
What kept him—and stayed with him when he came to establish his own cheese business—was the Dairy’s laser focus on improving the quality of British cheese. “Once I had figured out what they were trying to achieve, it was totally compelling,” he explains. “They have a mission. It makes it sound religious, but when you consider that when they started the British cheese industry was losing small scale producers one after the other, and Neal’s Yard Dairy has turned it around and fostered raw milk cheese production with real character… “ he trails off, his point being—I think—that it is difficult not to talk about Neal’s Yard and its powerfully effective sense of purpose with anything less than religious-like zeal.

The business is focused on flavour, “not age, not reputation, or any other peripheral thing,” Dominic continues. “You taste the cheese and you make a judgment on that. Selecting cheese on the basis of flavour—and closing the circle of communication between the producer and the customer by feeding back to the cheesemaker—that is at the core of Borough Cheese’s identity and has been bequeathed to us by Neal’s Yard Dairy.”

Wandering around the Victorian railway arches in Bermondsey where Neal’s Yard Dairy stores and matures its cheeses, it’s hard not to feel pseudo-religious about their impact on the British cheese scene. With the vaulted ceilings, busy silence and the tangible sense of time you always get when looking at cheese wheels—even the arches themselves—it does seem a bit like a church.

The comparison is strengthened further by the analogy deployed by Jason to describe the Dairy’s renowned workplace culture. “Someone once told me the story of the masons working on Milan’s cathedral. When asked what they were doing, one looked up and said, ‘I’m laying stones.’ But the second looked up and said, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ That feeling of working together to build something better for the community—ourselves, cheesemakers, wider society—that is what we want every single person working here to feel.”

A levelling medium
It’s why every lunchtime, employees at the arches take turns to cook for each other—a practice Jason started 13 years ago. “The Dairy buys the food, one person cooks, and we all stop and eat together, packaging, delivery drivers, directors. It’s a very levelling medium, the dinner table,” he observes. They are invested in the success not just of their own business, but that of their staff and other cheese businesses around the country—to the point of forming a ‘silent partnership’ with the Jericho Cheese Company, a cheese shop in Oxford run by another of their alumni. “It’s a way we can spread ideas and practices a bit wider, without having a Neal’s Yard Dairy on every street corner,” says buying director Bronwen Percival. “What is good for the whole cheese industry is good for the Dairy.”

“I don’t see them as competitors,” Jason says, when I ask him about the rationale behind supporting other cheese shops. “I see them as partners. It would be very unhealthy for the market if, 40 years on, we were still the only game in town. Back then the cheesemakers we worked with were dependent on us and had a very fragile existence. We need a diversity of people committed to supporting quality British cheese and its makers. If they and other food businesses founded on the principles of respect and quality are strong, then we are strong too.”

Today, with the exception of Stichelton, they never buy more than 50 per cent of what a cheesemaker produces. This isn’t just about market plurality; it’s also about quality. “There is a significant fluctuation that exists with handmade cheese. People talk about seasonality, which is important of course. What the cows eat will determine the flavour. But it can also be to do with the weather that day, the cheesemaker—even how the cheesemaker was feeling. It’s like a radio wave,” Jason continues, drawing an analogue, radio-like wave on one of the maturing rooms blackboards, a horizontal line through the centre and shading in the top half of the peaks. “We want this cheese.” 

Developing relationships
It’s the pursuit of this percentile that sees himself and the buying team on a monthly tour of Britain’s cheesemakers, tasting and selecting cheeses. “The maturation is the sexy part. The most important part of what we do is the selection. However you mature a cheese, it will always be bad if it was a bad cheese to start off with.” Visiting producers, developing a relationship with them such that they show the buyers the cheeses they think are best, checking hygiene and quality control: this, says Jason, is what selecting cheese means.

The towering wooden shelves creaking with cheeses, the proliferation of cheesemakers across the UK and the awards they are decorated with is the legacy of those visits; of the advice, the support and, at the heart of it all, the focus on flavour. “The privileging of flavour and methods that deliver really good flavours has been a successful strategy from the beginning,” says Bronwen, whose work with both farms and cheesemakers (not all cheesemakers are farm-based) has paved the way for more raw milk cheese and “safety through hygiene rather than sterility and low microbial diversity”. 

Though the Dairy now boasts 85 employees—around 175 at Christmas time—“we are as close to the cheese as we have always been,” says Jason. “Whether it’s Bronwen spending time with a brand new cheesemaker, discussing how to improve the recipe, our managing director David Lockwood and I talking to them about the business aspect or most recently, using our own vans to deliver because they’re refrigerated so we don’t have to depend on third parties—everything we do is about improving British cheese.”

Enterprising cheesemakers
Tentatively, because that’s the only way it’s possible to ask about the future these days, I raise the matter of the next 40 years. What are their hopes for Neal’s Yard Dairy—and by extension, what are their hopes for cheese in Britain? Bronwen, like Dominic, hopes to continue to build “the market for British cheese, while at the same time producing the cheese to serve that market. You can’t have one without the other.” Dominic agrees: “We need to challenge the ubiquity of the commodity retailers which are out there. I would like to see a greater availability of merchants like Neal’s Yard and Borough Cheese Company scattered around the country, so a broader swathe of people can get good quality cheese.”

Jason sees—and indeed is actively working to foster—a future in which we’ll see “the marriage of small dairy farms with young entrepreneurs who want to be cheesemakers. A lot of dairy farmers are so small they can only survive if they get a premium for their quality milk, and it can be transformed into a higher price if made into cheese.” Farmers have the milk and the buildings; enterprising cheesemakers have the time and expertise, but not the capital. The Dairy will be “a matchmaker—a sort of Tinder app for cheesemakers and dairy farmers, so producers from both sides of the farm gate can team up and make cheese.”

I ask Jason what their secret is, though having spoken to both Bronwen and Dominic as well as numerous employees present and past over the years, I can guess the answer. “A singularity of focus. In an environment where there is a lot of legislation and bureaucracy around what we do; in which the political climate is complicated; in which there are more staff; we remain focused on the most important thing, which is the cheese we are selling and how to improve it.” The future at large might not seem that bright at the moment, the future of food complex and uncertain. But at this rate, Britain’s future will at the very least be full of interesting, authentic, ever-improving cheese.