Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Neal's Yard Dairy

Neals Yard Dairy (NYD) is a well-known company that specialises in British and Irish territorial cheeses.  The operations cover the full range from affinage (maturing and looking after the cheeses), selecting and grading cheeses, wholesale supply (restaurants, delis and other cheese shops), export, and retail to the public through two popular shops – one in Covent Garden and one next to Borough Market.  Sandi and I were lucky enough to be able to work at NYD for 2 ½ months from mid-October 2012.  We had previously been making cheese at one of NYD’s suppliers – Holker Farm Dairy – so already had some insight into the business, but it was interesting to get involved and see where the cheese had been going!

Sandi worked in the Borough Market shop, basically selling cheese to the public all day.  The NYD style is all about the cheese – which is the star – and making sure the customer has chosen the right cheese for them.  The culture is based on the fact that that every block of cheese is individual and can have a different character from even those in the same batch.  Many of the producers that supply NYD are very small volume and all the cheese is hand made.  This requires a lot of tasting – by both the customers and the cheese monger.  How can you recommend a cheese to a customer if you aren’t familiar with the particular pieces on display!?  With all that cheese out on display, there is a lot of work involved in setting it out in the morning, and putting it all away in the evening.  Sandi learnt how to cut down and section large cheeses, how to glass-face (applying cling-film to the cut face), how to wrap different shapes of cheese amongst other skills.  Even though she learnt a lot in 2 ½ months, we were always impressed with the skill, ease and speed with which a seasoned cheesemonger can accomplish these tasks after years in the profession.
We worked at NYD in the lead up to Christmas, and then through the Christmas rush, which is the company’s busiest period.  The last few days before Christmas are insane, with long queues out the door of each shop and cheesemongers elbow-to elbow behind the slate.  There were even employees whose job was to manage the queues in the shop.  We simply couldn’t believe how much cheese was sold over those few days (and it was all top-quality).
Sandi in action with a piece of Montgomery's Cheddar

Andrew spent his time on “cheese shift” at the maturing rooms in Bermondsey.  These are situated inside brick railway arches.  This is where all the cheeses arrive from suppliers, at which point they are checked in by Cheese Shift, and taken to the appropriate ripening rooms.  Generally the harder cheeses – such as Cheddars, Lancashire, Red Leicester – are already ready to sell when they arrive (they will have been selected by managers on trips to the suppliers during the year and matured by the cheese makers).  If all these cheeses had to be matured for up to two years, there just wouldn’t be any room.  However there is still an impressive amount of hard cheese in stock.  And it all needs to be tasted and graded weekly to ensure it is top quality and that customers get the right profile of cheese.  Andrew could often be found wiping the rinds and turning these hard cheeses.  There is also a large volume of Colston Basset Stilton and a similar cheese called Stichelton that need to be held on the shelves, turned, and tasted through in a similar way. Another big job for the staff on Cheese Shift is to move all these blue cheeses by hand.  At busy times we moved up to 6 pallets (about 5500kg) worth of Stilton in a day, which involved throwing individual 7kg cheeses up to someone on the mezzanine area, stacking them on shelves, and rotating older cheeses back down the ground level shelves.  This is good team work, and there was certainly no need for a gym membership for Andrew!  
Andrew patting cheeses at the arches.
The soft cheeses, such as lactic curd, washed rinds and white moulded cheeses were generally given a lot more thorough treatment.  As they arrived, we laid them out on wire racks and often they would need drying in the special drying room.  After this they would be moved into one of a series of temperature and humidity controlled rooms.  In these rooms they would develop their characteristic rinds.  In order to ensure the top quality of the cheeses, they were patted down, wiped, washed or turned at necessary intervals until they were ready to be sold.  This was a very hands on job where one became very familiar with each particular cheese. 

We tasted so many cheeses during our time at NYD, many of which we are intending to write about on this blog, so keep an eye out in the future.

We both really enjoyed our time working at NYD.  Each of the teams we were in was inclusive, open, passionate, and always willing to teach us.  In fact, NYD is full of passionate people, who believe in the absolute top quality of cheese.  If it wasn’t for Neals Yard Dairy, a number of traditional British cheeses would probably no longer be made.  As it is, most of them have only one remaining manufacturer who makes them to the traditional methods.  We were sad to leave and under different circumstances would have loved to return.   We thoroughly recommend a visit to Neal’s yard Diary for any cheese lover who finds themselves in London.  
The Borough Market shop

So much top quality cheese.

Wensleydale and Stichelton.

Kirkham's Lancashire.

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