Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Cheesemongers of London - Sorting your Cardo from your Coolea

Oak bowl by Robert Thompson
The 'Mouseman" of Kilburn

It's not difficult to buy cheese in London.  It's not difficult to buy good cheese in London.  But it wasn't always so and you still need to sort your Cardo from your Coolea.

Cardo: a washed-rind goat's cheese made by Mary Holbrook in Somerset;
The supple, glossy paste is typically chalkier, curdier at core; 
floral flavours are cut with a vegetal bitterness. The rind is savoury and rich; 
texture is toothsome, sometimes with pleasant crystalline crunch.  
Cardoon stamen infusion.  Source: Neal's Yard Dairy

In the Victorian era, cheesemongers were as common on the London high street as butchers, bakers, and greengrocers.  Two World Wars and the rush for mass production to feed a post-war population brought cheesemaking to a rubbery, tasteless low.  Patrick Rance wrote of the depths most British cheese had sunk to by 1982 in his The Great British Cheese Book.  "Good cheese has been almost killed by lack of understanding and care among politicians, bureaucrats, dairymen and retailers.  It can only be raised back to health by a professional, indeed a vocational, attitude in those who wish to put things right and make their living by doing so."  From his little cheese shop in Streatley, Berkshire, which he set up in 1954 (closed in 1990), his words were a rallying call to those who cared about our cheesemaking history.

Patrick Rance's book appeared 3 years after the formation of Neal's Yard Dairy, where in 1979 a small group of enthusiasts began making yogurt and soft cheeses at their Covent Garden base.  The early results weren't always a success so they bought in the best cheeses they could get from wholesalers to re-sell alongside their experimental cheeses.  Then cheesemaker Hilary Charnley sent them a 'Devon Garland', a Caerphilly-style cheese, to try.  Its flavour and character were so different from what they had been buying that Randolph Hodgson, who by then owned Neal's Yard Dairy, drove down to Devon to see why.  What he found was a small-scale, independent, traditional cheesemaker of a kind that had all but disappeared.  Her introductions to a few other artisan cheesemakers nearby made it feasible for Hodgson to make regular visits to the producers, select the cheeses he wanted, transport them back to London, mature them and sell them to appreciative customers.  Hodgson's subsequent formation of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association proved vital in successfully countering Whitehall and EU misinformation about safety in cheese production, and halting the mass Americanisation of our farmhouse cheese production.

I worked for a short while at Neal's Yard Dairy and I can't recommend enough this champion (saviour, in fact) of British farmhouse cheeses. Thanks to that education, I know a little bit about what it takes to care for the lovingly produced cow's, ewe's and goat's milk cheeses in all their hard, semi-hard, soft, washed and blue glory.  So I think, a few recommendations for my fellow cheese-lovers in London, whether you live here or are just visiting, is long overdue.  This list is not definitive but is based on my own experience.  To buy the best cheeses that have been carefully selected, knowledgeably handled and offered in peak condition, you have to find who truly knows their Cardo from their Coolea.

Neal's Yard Dairy

First up has to be Neal's Yard Dairy.  Their focus continues to be on supporting the makers of farm cheese and produce in the British Isles, with a particular passion for unpasteurised and raw milk cheeses. They still, as they have done since the early 1980's, make regular buying trips to the makers.  These days, maturing is carried out in south London railway arches.  Their tiny Covent Garden shop is only a few paces from the original premises used back at the birth of the business, but there is a larger shop alongside Borough Market.  This is the shop that will open your eyes to how good British dairy produce can be.  They also run a great series of Cheese Tasting Classes. Most good cheese shops and many restaurants in the UK, and beyond, source their British cheeses from Neal's Yard Dairy.
LOCATIONS: 17 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden WC2 & 6 Park Street, (Borough Market) SE1
They also open Saturday 9-2pm at Spa Terminus, Bermondsey SE16.  On-line ordering too.

Gour Noir Raw Goat's milk cheese
at Mons Cheesemongers

The British arm of the French company Mons Cheesemongers was set up in 2006 by two ex-Neal's Yard Dairy staff.  In France, Hubert Mons had started his business by sourcing artisanal cheeses for his market stall in the Auvergne region of France in the early 1960's.  From maturing rooms in St Haon le Chatel in the Cote Roannaise comes traditionally made French and Swiss cheeses to feed an appreciate London market. A number of good cheese shops and restaurants in the UK buy their French cheeses from Mons Cheesemongers.
LOCATIONS: Borough Market, SE1; Brockley Market on Saturdays; Spa Terminus, Bermondsey SE1 on Saturdays.  New shop soon to open in East Dulwich.

London Cheesemongers
Pavilion Road, Chelsea

If you were in any doubt of the good done by Neal's Yard Dairy to the cheese world, you just have to look at the people who have set up these independent businesses (not to mention those who have gone on to make cheese).  Jared Wybrow of London Cheesemongers is another of the alumni. Late last year he added to his London market stall portfolio with a shop in Chelsea.  Jared's many years spent at Neal's Yard Dairy, where he ran their 'Markets', is clear to see in the attention to detail in this exemplary cheesemonger.  Here the focus is on sourcing a small but perfectly formed selection of British, French and Italian cheeses and other dairy produce for a West London clientele. The upstairs room at Pavilion Road hosts events and offers cheese lunches on Saturdays providing an opportunity to get to know the cheeses and take a break from shopping.
LOCATIONS: Shop at 251 Pavilion Road SW1.  Saturdays at Hildreth Street Market, Balham SW12; Sundays Herne Hill Farmer's Market SE24,

Cheese by Patricia Michelson

Patricia Michelson opened her shop, La Fromagerie, in Highbury Park in 1992 and a second in Marylebone in 2002.  Both feature maturing cellars and walk-in cheese rooms.  Patricia's knowledge and passion for cheese is well known and I remember my own excitement at discovering her little cheese cave in the original Highbury shop at a time when it was not so easy to buy good French cheeses in London.  Both of the shops also offer a range of foods and feature cafes and while the Marylebone premises can feel cramped, the walk-in cheese room can feel like a calm oasis amongst the bustle.  Michelson's book Cheese, published in 2010, covers 450 varieties from around the world, the importance of terroir and information on storing, cutting and serving them. La Fromagerie also has a wide-ranging Events schedule.
LOCATIONS: Shops at Higbury N5 and Marylebone W1

KaseSwiss cheeses

KaseSwiss, although primarily a wholesaler of cheeses, qualifies for my favourites list as it opens for retail each Saturday at Spa Terminus in Bermondsey SE16.  Owner Rachael Sills founded Kaseswiss in 2005 after 10 years with Neal's Yard Dairy and focusses on selecting and showcasing traditional artisan made cheeses from Switzerland.  She also sells a select range of hand-made unpasteurised milk, small-batch Dutch cheeses for sister company Boerenkaas,
LOCATION: Arch 5, Voyager Estate South, Bermondsey SE16 4RP (Saturdays 9am - 2pm)

I must mention a couple of small London Cheesemongers who sell only cheeses they make themselves.  And what cheeses they are:

Bermondsey Hard Pressed

When William Oglethorpe began making cheese in his railway arch in south London in 2008 it seemed an unlikely location for a dairy but it provides a perfect space and maturing conditions for the cheeses he produces at Kappacasein Dairy.  Collecting raw organic cow's milk during the morning's milking from a farm in Kent and starting the cheese-making process within 2 hours of collection is a vital part of the cheesemaking approach here.  Making the curd in a 600L copper vat with minimum interventions adds to Kappacasein's commitment to bringing out the best qualities of the milk used.  What comes out of the arch is Bermondsey Hard Pressed, a traditional Alpage Gruyere type; Bermondsey Frier, made to an Italian Formaggio Cotto recipe; a cow's milk Ricotta; and a traditional Pot Set Yoghurt.
LOCATION: Arch 1, Voyager Estate South, Bermondsey SE16 4RP (Saturdays 9am - 2pm).  You will also find Kappacasein at Borough Market where you can enjoy the best cheese toastie in London.

A matured Edmund Tew cheese from
Blackwoods Cheese Company

Blackwoods Cheese Company was founded in summer 2013 to make raw milk soft cow's cheeses using as little intervention as possible.  Collecting their milk supplies from a trusted Kent farm as milking was taking place then transporting it back to their Brockley cheesemaking base. Last year, helped by Crowdfunding, they relocated their base to nearby Chiddingstone, Kent to be closer to the source of their milk.   Cheeses are currently Graceburn, a Persian Feta style cheese; Blackwood's Cow's Curd, a fresh lactic cheese; Edmund Tew (the first in their convict series - see website!), a small lactic cow's cheese that develops a Geotrichum rind and a savoury malty flavour; and William Heaps, a fresh, lactic cow's cheese.  It's useful to know that Blackwood's is also a supplier of Whey.
LOCATIONS: Brockley Market and Borough Market and various shops in London.

Other Cheesemongers in London of note:
Paxton & Whitfield
LOCATIONS: Shops at 93 Jermyn Street W1; 22 Cale Street, SW3; and a small number of stores outside London

LOCATION: Shop at 10a Lamb Street E1 (Old Spitalfields Market).

Coolea: A pasteurised cow's milk hard cheese made by Dick Willems in County Cork; 
The flavours are sweet and rich with hints of hazelnut, butterscotch and honey.
Smooth and close in texture, reminiscent of Dutch Gouda.    Animal Rennet. 
Source: Neal's Yard Dairy

I wonder what Patrick Rance would make of things now?