In 1980 the seemingly innocuous but soon to prove highly enjoyable phrase ‘A selection of British and Irish farmhouse cheeses’ began to appear on restaurant dessert menus across the UK with increasing regularity.
I use the phrase ‘seemingly innocuous’ advisedly because serving top quality cheeses presents particular challenges for restaurateurs: they are highly perishable and neither very profitable nor that easy to sell, as many customers feel, with some justification, that it is the one dish they can do just as well at home.
But cheese is also very different as a product from almost all the others a restaurateur offers. Fish is better the fresher it is while most meat is at its best having been hung for 21 to 28 days at the most. The softer, most perishable cheeses are best when young but it will always be those which have matured over several months or even longer which will supply the more complex flavours, cheeses such as Montgomery or Quicke’s Cheddar, Appleby’s Cheshire, Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire, Colston Bassett Stilton, Berkswell and Spenwood.
The man who has been encouraging British cheese makers to look for and develop such flavours and who, since he began working at the first Neal’s Yard Dairy in 1979, has acted as midwife, agony uncle and buyer to these committed farmers and supplier to many restaurants is Randolph Hodgson. He has fulfilled this very diverse series of roles because, with their cattle being milked every day of the year, most cheese makers have neither the space nor the capital to mature their cheeses.
Hodgson has had to do this for them in many instances and the remarkable success he has achieved in this field has been in spite of the cramped basement in Covent Garden where it all began and the subsequently much larger premises in Borough Market. But these too have finally proved too small over the past few years to cope with the burgeoning demand for the 70 British and Irish cheeses Neal’s Yard Dairy now handles from its growing number of British, French, Spanish, Japanese, American and, most recently, Hong Kong consumers.
And so one lunchtime Hodgson and I set off to a series of four, from the outside at least, rather non-descript railway arches in Bermondsey, south east London. But it is here that the future flavours of these, and many new cheeses, will now be investigated, developed and matured in a building whose interior is very different. The arches have been lined with bright, white ribbed plastic and the entire area now, after Hodgson’s investment of over £350,000, has the air of a modern scientific laboratory.
White coats, blue hairnets and shoe nets donned and hands scrubbed, Hodgson and I ventured into the first of four cold stores, each of which has a different temperature setting and humidity so that he and his assistant cheese magician, William Oglethorpe, can watch and affect how the cheeses develop. “This is Tunworth,” Hodgson explained, “a new cows’ milk cheese made by Julie Cheyney at Hyde Farm in Herriard in Hampshire. They’re only at the kitchen sink stage at the moment so these cheeses are just two days old. We’ll keep them here, test them and tell them how long they should age it so that the cheese can develop the right salt and acid balance and most importantly the right length of flavour.”
The other three cold stores, each of which displays the date on which it was last fumigated on the door, contain a range of washed rind, soft, goats and harder cheeses on which different moulds are being cultivated and their changing tastes monitored. The biggest challenge is the speed with which these changes can take place, Hodgson explained, “An awful lot can happen between when we leave here on Friday night and return on Monday morning.”
Beyond these cold stores is what looks like an extensive cheese library with racks of shelves made from spruce, the same wood that is used to age Comté cheese in underground cellars in south eastern France. But instead of books these shelves are full of hundreds of truckles of cheese all maturing under the shadow of a broad hood which floods them with cold air to ensure that they mature gently enough to maximise flavour. At the far end three women were preparing an export order of 500 mini-truckles of Appleby’s Cheshire to be shipped to branches of Whole Foods stores across the US.
The rest of the ground floor is taken up with another large cold store and two areas are given over to the cutting, preparation, and despatch of the cheese orders to the Dairy’s 200 restaurant customers in the UK alone. But upstairs on a mezzanine floor is what will really enhance the future of all the Dairy buys, matures and sells.
Again it all seems innocuous from the outside, a row of six rooms, but as Hodgson explained, four of them are given over to small tasting rooms where they can sit down with cheese makers, buyers and restaurateurs and go through the tasting process. “We’ve never had this luxury in the past,” Hodgson explained, “everything either happened in the crowded shop or in a rather uncomfortable cold store. Here we can show the cheese makers how their cheeses have developed and what we’re still working towards.”
But the hub of the business is next door, the cheese sales office, where six young men and women with ear pieces and computer screens are taking orders in fluent French, Italian and Spanish. At one end is Jason Hinds who deals with all the orders from British restaurateurs and who wants Hodgson’s advice as to how to deal with the request from a well-known restaurateur to supply him at his new café although he left them late last year with an unpaid bill of £6,000 from his previous restaurant.
When Hodgson built these new premises he thoughtfully asked his staff what they wanted to see installed and immediately acceded to their three requests: a proper stereo system in the despatch room; a kitchen so that they can cook for each other and not have to eat cheese all day; and, finally, a shower so that when they go out after work they do not smell of cheese.
And it this management approach which is the most reassuring aspect for cheese lovers everywhere. Hodgson, who has done more in my opinion for the quality and integrity of British food than all the chefs on television and those who have appeared in the honours lists, has not only built a mature business with a turnover of £7.5 million and a staff of over 70 but has also established a new career path for many young cheese enthusiasts from all over the world to follow and perhaps even to emulate.
Happily, from railway arches in Bermondsey, that seemingly innocuous line ‘A selection of British and Irish farmhouse cheeses’ looks set fair to appear on an increasing number of restaurant menus for another generation at least.