Standard bearers: Neal’s Yard Dairy

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food-approved trader Neal’s Yard Dairy

There is a sense of serenity upon walking into Neal’s Yard Dairy: a calm, cool air reminiscent of churches—only in this case, the alter is the cheese counter and the deities truckles of cheddar, blue Stichelton and creamy-faced bries. The parsons are cheesemongers: wise, friendly souls who are never too busy to spare five, 10 or even 30 minutes showing you the stairway to lactic heaven.

If Slow Food were a religion—and to speak to many in the movement, it might as well be—then Neal’s Yard Dairy is an apt place of worship; a place ideologically aligned with the Slow Food principles of supporting good produce and the people who produce it, while at the same time rooted in the economic reality of running a business in 2017.

“That’s why I’m speaking so quickly,” says the manager of the Borough Market shop Martin Tkalez, as we discuss Neal’s Yard’s Slow Food approved status in the tight window between his serving customers and receiving a delivery of Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese. “We’re in central London, and sitting on lumps of maturing cheese we’ve invested in. That’s one thing on a hillside in rural France where no one lives, quite another in one of the world’s most expensive cities.”

At their maturing rooms in nearby Bermondsey, the wheels vary hugely and demand constant monitoring of temperature, taste and humidity. The dairy’s dedicated team of affineurs decide precisely when the cheese is ready, and pass it carefully into the hands of the sales team, each of whom undergo extensive and continuous training as to the traditions and people behind every cheese sold at the dairy, and are kept up to date daily with subtle variations in taste.

Wonky fruit
They are dedicated to bringing British cheese in all its guises to a wider audience: not just big hitters like Lincolnshire poacher, but the “wonky fruit”, as Martin affectionately dubs the cheese that is “interesting, but takes time to appreciate”—blue-flecked Montgomery cheddar, for example. They take time to explain to their customers, and to advise on storage and serving options. “That’s what we’re good at,” he continues—”making time for the customer and for the producer, and being the best middlemen we can be.”  

To this end, director David Lockwood and Bronwen Percival, the dairy’s buyer, spend hours on the road visiting their 40-odd cheesemakers and chatting to them. “People come in here, they see our cheeses on menus, and they assume we’re big and successful. The secret to being that is to understand you are never an expert.” The staff may look at ease while you meditate the relative merits of Milleens, but in order to do that they are, “flogging themselves behind the scenes”.

Martin is joking of course—well, half joking. The Neal’s Yard team do work hard, but they are highly valued. No trader would ever be approved by Slow Food were they not ensuring their staff had decent working hours, and paying at least the London living wage. “We’ve a mission statement at Neal’s Yard Dairy, to ‘improve the farmhouse cheese of Britain and the British Isles’. We do that so that when we’re running the business—which is a whole mix of different things now—we’ve a guiding principle when it comes to making decisions.”

For example, when it comes to expanding, David and Bronwen felt they needed maturing rooms large enough to accommodate not just their current collection, but the possibility of even more cheese “so when we say we’re ‘slow’, we mean we’re acting today for those producers to come—the cheese of the future”.

The proverbial church roof
In Borough Market terms, Neal’s Yard Dairy is a big business and must act with the requisite mindset—but it’s the ability to do this while supporting Britain’s farmers and artisanal producers that makes it a standard bearer for Slow Food. Martin calls it “the heavy lifting”. At first we think he’s referring to the Lancashire wheels, but on reflection we realise it’s more than that: it’s the business end of Slow Food’s idealism—the raffle, cake sale, church collections and bookkeeping for the proverbial church roof.