Back in December I was invited to do an unpaid internship at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Needless to say I was ecstatic- anyone who’s talked to me at length about cheese knows how crazy I am about the work these folks do. I set my trip up so I would work for a week in mid-May, when the soft goat’s milk cheeses were in full swing. This was an opportunity of a lifetime, and I was immediately treated like an employee which allowed for an incredibly immersive and enriching experience.
When I arrived Monday morning my friend James (one of our main contacts for NYD) gave me a tour of the space. NYD rents four arches beneath the London bridge rail line. The arches are about 30 feet high, 25 feet wide and probably 50 yards long. I was anticipating something much larger. Yes, the rail is still in operation and every 30 minutes or so I was startled by the sound and vibration of a train passing overhead. After a brief tour I was handed over to the Cheese Shift. My week was split between Cheese Shift and retail. Cheese Shift is a team of 5 people who manage all of the maturation work for NYD. Every shift began with donning the uniform- a blue hat, a heavy waterproof apron, a long chef’s coat and Wellington boots. Every time you left a designated sanitary area your boots and apron had to be scrubbed off.
I spent my first couple of hours checking in 150 wheels of Ardrahan, followed by washing each wheel. The washing process consisted of filling a bowl with lukewarm water, wetting a cloth and gently rubbing the rinds of the cheeses. This whole process took about 3 hours. The rest of my day was spent working with soft cheese. The soft cheese room contains 5 air-sealed, temperature-controlled walk-ins- each maintaining a different environment based upon temperature and humidity. They use these environments to control the aging of the cheese. For instance, if the rind on a camembert-style cheese was tacky and wet, the cheese would be taken to a room that is dry and utilizes 2 industrial fans to help dry out the rinds. A cheese that is drying out or not ripening quick enough would be put into a room that is damp and much higher in temperature and humidity.
We spent about an hour or so going through all of the rooms and examining each batch of cheese to determine what environment the cheeses needed for the day. Sometimes a cheese is kept in a particular room for a couple of hours before continuing on to a less extreme environment. For the remainder and what seemed like the majority of the day I turned over 100’s of soft cheese carefully and removed any unwanted molds on the rinds that could later develop into off-flavors or troublesome ripening. After work we went to get beers at a local dive.
Day 2 was spent working on hard cheese. The hard cheese is stored on a series of interlocking wooden shelves in a temperature-controlled environment around 50-55 degrees with damp floors that helped increase humidity in the space. The shelves are made of rough cut pine boards, which are cut in such a way that they do not produce splinters. The morning was spent flipping cheeses on their sides and using the palm of my hand to wipe any excess molds or cheese mites off the rinds. The weights of the cheeses ranged from 6 pounds to 80 pounds.
Turning a cheese allows for the milk to settle into a more even paste and also helps with the development of the rind. The work that I did that morning, turning and brushing off molds, constitutes the majority of the work done when working on hard cheese. In the afternoon, I tasted through all of the batches of cheese available to the US and selected what would come to the Wine Source at the end of June. We tasted a wheel from each batch using a trowel. The trowel allows for a taste of cheese without cutting into it. The trowel is screwed into the cheese and slowly removed and in the trowel there is a bit cheese from rind line to the center. Once you have tasted it, you use the remainder to plug the hole so the rind can continue to develop. This tool is crucial in determining at which age a particular cheese should be sold.
Doing this walk through gave me a much better understanding of how things are selected on the other side of the phone. It was very interesting to taste the cheese before they reached maturity, and I’m pretty excited to taste the cheese that arrived this week and see how they’ve changed these past 4 weeks in transit.
Just before the end of the day, we had the good fortune to taste an entire year’s worth of Montgomery’s Cheddar with cheesemaker Jamie Montgomery. The range of flavors in those Cheddars due to seasonality and slight variations was incredible.
Day 3 began with tasting through cheeses with buyers from shops in London. Unlike the day before, we tasted only mature, ready-to-sell cheese. Cheese shift’s aim is to sell all of the cheese in their inventory. Sometimes this task is difficult, as some cheeses simply don’t taste as good as others (keep in mind that Neal’s Yard has the best British cheese in the world, so even if something is tasting a little flat, it’s still pretty tasty). After the retail walk-through I spent the majority of my time with Mary Holbrook (mother of English goat’s milk cheese!), working on her cheeses and other soft cheeses. She’s 70 or so and still fiery and quick-witted. Mary has been making cheese since the 70’s when artisanal production was not a profitable business and her stories were very insightful. We spent most of our time on her cheese, Cardo. This is a very unique cheese- it’s a thistle renneted, wash-rind goat’s cheese. We hope to have a wheel of this very special cheese at the beginning of August.
In the afternoon, I sorted through a new shipment of Berkswell, separating them by batches and then re-ordering them on the shelves. Sounds boring (yes it was), but these types of tasks are completed by someone on an hourly basis. Any notions of magical, cave-aged affinage were squashed by this entire experience. Don’t let anyone fool you into believing the romantics of cheese-aging. It’s sterile, clinical, repetitive, fast-paced, quick thinking and back breaking work. The foundation of maturation work is not screwing up a perfectly good cheese.
The final 2 days I spent in the shops working the cheese counter. Neal’s Yard operates two shops, both of which are located in central London but very different from one another. The shops exclusively sell NYD cheeses, save for one Parmesean and one Brie. Like all of their operation, everything is efficient and well executed. Something that I’ve always liked about NYD is the way they talk about cheese. Selling cheese is less about theater and pretentiousness and more about flavor and stories. That’s something I can appreciate. Most importantly, what I learned through working there for a week is that NYD backs up its mission of quality in every step of the process.
So come in on Saturday and taste the cheeses that I selected a month ago, I think the four cheeses that have arrived are a great representation of the sturdy no frills delicious cheese that England is known for.