Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Christmas at Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy, Covent Garden
Having shopped at Neal's Yard Dairy for many years, I'm confident this is the place for the best in British and Irish cheeses.  No only do they carefully source and hand-pick the cheeses, but they often buy them young and invest considerable time, effort and expertise in maturing them to the point of perfection before they reach the customer.  If you've ever been in either the Borough or Covent Garden shops in London you'll know you're encouraged to taste before buying.  It's important to them that you have excellent cheeses to unwrap when you get home.  You will also have appreciated the knowledge, and friendliness of the staff.  Well now I can vouch for just how genuine their enthusiasm is.

Each year, in early December, the ranks of cheesemongers begin to swell and reach a peak mid-month.  This is the build-up to Christmas at Neal's Yard Dairy and this year I am part of it.  For the past two weeks I have been on a steep learning curve, immersed in the world of the artisan producer and specialist food retailer.  I've met some of the producers, toured the maturing rooms, unloaded vans, cleaned, displayed, cut, wrapped and sold, and seen just what it takes to get that amazing piece of Stichelton, Montgomery's Cheddar, Lancashire or St James into the hands of the customer.  It's no wonder the cheesemongers want to tell you about the product and advise you how to keep it when you get home.  Every cheese is precious, not just for how much money can be made out of it but for the effort that has gone into selecting the milk, making the cheese, maturing it and offering it to the customer.

We Christmas cheesemongers may only be around for 2-4 weeks, or, as many do, we may decide to stay on, but we all receive the same great education from the permanent staff.  I can't think of anywhere else where you can get such total immersion in artisan food production, retailing, customer relations and how to work as a team.  We expect to be totally exhausted by the time we close the doors on our last customer on Christmas Eve and go for a hard-earned drink at the pub on the corner.  We're sure to be red-knuckled from the constant cleaning regime, stiff-backed from being on our feet all day, and sore-footed from wearing our fetching white wellies.  So, please bear with us if you are in the queue, we really do want to send you home with a great piece of cheese for Christmas.

Here's a recipe for my version of raclette based on the dish you can buy from Bill Oglethorpe's stall, Kappacasein, on Borough Market's Green Market, along with fantastic toasted cheese Poilane sandwiches.  Incidentally, Bill was involved in the development of Ogleshield, hence the name.  It's a peasant dish comprising potatoes, pickles and cheese and, in my opinion, nothing save a grinding of black pepper should be added.

(for 4 people)

1kg (2.2lbs) potatoes (Ratte or Charlottes are good)
400g (14oz) *Ogleshield or Raclette cheese
200g (7oz) cornichon (or mix of cornichon and white pearl onions
Black pepper

Boil the potatoes in their skins in salted water until just cooked, drain and crush lightly.  Assuming you do not have a racette iron, cut the cheese into fairly thin slices and either fry in a non-stick pan until just melted before scraping it onto the potatoes, or place on top of the potatoes and grill until just melted.  Add a good grinding of black pepper and serve hot with the pickles alongside.

* An English washed-rind, unpasteurised cow's milk cheese made by Jamie Montgomery and Wayne Mitchell in Somerset.  Rich, long-lasting, fruity wine-like flavours with a creamy and pliant texture.