Though I haven’t posted about it in a while, my quest to eat a lot of British cheese during our time in London has been continuing apace since my posts about cheese from Paxton & Whitfield (see here and here). Since then, however, I’ve changed my source up: I’ve been getting my cheese exclusively from Neal’s Yard Dairy. This is not because I’ve encountered a problem with Paxton & Whitfield; it’s just that I’ve discovered that Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Covent Garden store is even more convenient, being just about a 10-15 minute brisk walk from my place of work. And it’s also the case, as people who know British cheese will smugly say that they’d already told me, when it comes to British cheese, Neal’s Yard Dairy is the place to go; that in fact they are at the center of the renaissance of British cheese in recent years.
As you will readily find out by looking around the web, the company launched in the late ’70s, in the Covent Garden location, with a view towards making cheese. That operation spun off eventually into an autonomous entity called Neal’s Yard creamery which currently makes mostly a few goat and cow’s milk cheeses and other milk products and Neal’s Yard Dairy began to focus primarily on the development and sale of farmhouse cheeses from across the British Isles. (There’s also Neal’s Yard Remedies in the vicinity but it has nothing to do with the cheese shop: they have a name in common because both are located right off Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden.) There’s now also a larger store in the Borough Market (of which more below) and another in Bermondsey where they also have rooms where they mature some of the cheeses they select.
But, as noted above, they’re not just a retailer and promoter of British farmhouse cheese: they have been involved in the development of some acclaimed cheeses (for example, Stichelton) and alumni of the company have gone on to make some acclaimed cheeses (for example, Gorwydd’s Caerphilly). And a number of the farmhouse cheeses they carry are sort of “special editions” matured longer or differently, either by the producers or by their own team. Unsurprisingly, their cheesemongers are both very knowledgable and very adept at explaining the histories of the cheeses they carry and the approaches of the cheese makers who create them—I was surprised to learn on my first visit that a number of the newer artisanal makers seem to take their cues more or at least as much from French cheese traditions as they do from the British. So it’s a good place to go to not just by British cheese but to gain an understanding of it.
This does not, however, mean that their stores’ selections are quite as spectacular—in a literal sense—as Paxton & Whitfield’s: you’re not going to encounter hundreds of cheeses. This is largely because their focus is almost entirely on British cheese: Paxton & Whitfield has a lot of British cheese but they also carry French and Italian cheese; and London’s other famous cheese shop, La Fromagerie, are, as their name suggests, specialists in French cheese. But Neal’s Yard also does not carry every possible British cheese (Paxton & Whitfield carry more British blue cheeses, for example); their narrower focus seems to allow them to pay greater attention to the condition of every cheese they sell—and presumably they have fewer cheeses that sit around past their prime: I’ve purchased sixteen cheeses from them so far and while I haven’t loved them all or equally, each has been in pristine condition. And, oh yes, just as at Paxton & Whitfield, the cheesemongers at Neal’s Yard are only to happy to give you samples of anything you’re interested in.
There are three galleries of images below. The first presents a view of their Covent Garden shop. The second is a quicker glimpse of their Borough Market shop. The third gives an overview of the cheeses I’ve purchased from them over the last few weeks (with brief impressions of the cheeses in the captions). At the very end I have some comments on which of these cheeses worked better or worse with a few different whiskies.
Of the two branches I’ve been to I’d recommend going to the Covent Garden store. It’s a cozier store and a more relaxed environment. You enter past giant wheels of Lincolnshire Poacher (a cheese I really should try soon) and all but rub shoulders with wheels of Stichelton etc. while contemplating what you should try/buy. The smaller scale really works for me. By the way, you’ll see a gigantic wheel of parmigiano in the gallery—even though they are specialists in British cheese, Neal’s Yard do occasionally carry excellent examples of non-British cheese.
On account of the fact that I know very little about British cheese I’d assumed that the Borough Market shop would be the primary location with a larger selection etc. Well, it is a larger store but I’m not sure that their selection of cheese is any larger than at the Covent Garden shop. What they do have is a second large room devoted mostly to chutneys and olive oils and bread and such—of which the Covent Garden store has a much smaller selection. It also feels like this room may be intended to give the cheese counter proper part of the shop a buffer from the busy food tourist traffic that the Borough Market draws. In fact, you have to queue up between the two rooms for service at the cheese counter. This seems to put more pressure on someone who might want to leisurely browse and taste (and discuss the cheeses with the cheesemongers), and in general the experience feels a bit too hectic. Then again this may just have been an anomalous situation on the day I visited.
I have so far purchased sixteen cheeses from Neal’s Yard at Covent Garden. They’ve all been in pristine condition and all have been educational in their way; some have been transcendentally good. Brief notes on all the cheeses are in the captions but I’ll highlight my very favourites here (in the order they show up in the gallery):
- Kirkham’s Lancashire: The last Lancashire cheese still made with raw milk, this unassuming looking hard cheese is dynamite when brought to room temperature for a few hours.The pleasures are as much of texture as of flavour (mildly yogurty): the Kirkhams describe its texture as “buttery crumble” and it’s hard to improve on that.
- Isle of Mull Cheddar: I have to say that this may be my favourite product from the Isle of Mull—my apologies to the Tobermory distillery. Neal’s Yard sells Isle of Mull that’s aged over 1 year and it shows in the rich mature flavour.
- Baron Bigod: An outrageously good brie-style cheese that’s oozy near the rind and almost crumbly at the core, with a rich buttery flavour.
- Beenleigh Blue: An outrageously good blue sheep’s milk cheese from the Ticklemore Dairy (real name). It can vary a lot by season, apparently, but the one I got was rich and fruity.
- Harbourne Blue: Also made at the Ticklemore Dairy, this is rather unusual as it’s a blue goat’s milk cheese. I believe it’s made the same way as the Beenleigh Blue (and their cow’s milk Devon Blue) with the milk source the only variable. Anyway, it’s only mildly goaty and mildly blue but intensely good.
- Stichelton: You may remember that while I liked the Stichelton from Paxton & Whitfield I thought it might have been past its prime. Comparing it to the bit I got from Neal’s Yard confirms that. This was creamier in texture and more nutty/savoury in taste before building to a bigger blue funk at the end.
- Colston Bassett Stilton: I know I should praise the raw milk, old-school “Stilton” style of Stichelton more but I liked this pasteurized classic even more. Neal’s Yard sells a version made specifically for them (separate recipe apparently). If you can call a stinky cheese stately, this is a stately cheese with a rich progression of flavour.
There were others I liked a lot too (more on them in the gallery).
Brief Notes on Whisky Pairings
- The most versatile cheeses with whisky were the Kirkham’s Lancashire and the Isle of Mull Cheddar.
- With the exception of the Harbourne Blue, none of the goat’s milk cheeses was particularly good with whisky this time either.
- All the blues were very good with the new batch of the Springbank 12 CS. They also matched up well with the last of my Lagavulin Lg6.
- Also surprisingly good with the Springbank 12 CS was the Baron Bigod.
- The Aultmore 12 and the Benromach 10 CS remain good all-rounder whiskies with cheese. They also pair better with apple than either the heavily peated or the heavily sherried whiskies I had on hand.
More experiments needed. I will persist. I will also go back to Paxton & Whitfield in search of a couple of Irish blues (Crozier and Cashel), and I might also go check out La Fromagerie’s British cheese selection in a week or two. Stay tuned!