Getting to Neal’s Yard Dairy, London’s preeminent cheese shop, from the Tube entails a meander through the historic Covent Garden neighborhood, down a narrow brick side street, past rows of well-manicured storefronts. If you’re not paying attention, you’ll walk right past the dairy without pause.
That would be a mistake.
The shop's windows display big, stacked wheels of cheese the size of your torso, some cut into wedges and tilted at an angle just so. To a cheese lover, this exhibit is as tantalizing as a display mannequin playfully inching a dress up her thigh. Step in, and the small shop goes straight back, cheeses piled high on either side of the walkway. To your right, whole wheels are still maturing on wood shelves, along with various chutneys, biscuits (crackers), and loaves of bread from local purveyors. To your left is the counter, with opened wheels waiting to be sampled from, eager cheesemongers ready to hand you a slice to taste, and to explain in detail the story behind that cheese and the farm from which it came.
I hadn’t even lived in London for a year when I became one of those eager cheesemongers. Donning my short-brimmed cloth cap, apron, and wellies, I began my apprenticeship at Neal’s Yard Dairy—or NYD, as the locals call it.
I wanted to learn as much about cheese as I could, specifically about the cheeses of the United Kingdom, my new home. There was no better place in which to immerse myself, as NYD sells cheeses exclusively from the British Isles (with the usual exceptions, like Parmigiano-Reggiano and Comté). When someone came in asking for Brie (a French cheese), for instance, we offered a Brie-style Baron Bigod from Suffolk, England. An inquiry for raclette (a Swiss cheese) would lead to a taste of the comparable Ogleshield, from a farm in Somerset.
My weeks as a cheesemonger in London were some of the most delicious and formative of my life. There are a thousand things I took with me from that experience, and still incorporate into my daily life at home today. Here are a few of those things.
British cheeses differ from continental cheeses in texture and taste, which stems from the way they’re produced, and from the origins of rural food production in general. Historically across Europe, a farmhouse would only have two to five cows. Since a day’s milk from that many cows wasn’t enough to make cheese, there were a couple ways this was handled: 1) Form a cooperative system with other farmers and pool your milk. 2) Save up the milk on one farm over several days.
Much of continental Europe chose the first option and developed community cooperative systems. But in the British Isles, individual farmers would collect days and days of their own cows’ milk before beginning cheese production. As a result, to this day, British curds are very acidic, set by a mixture of rennet coagulation and lactic acid coagulation. (Lactic acid coagulation makes the cheese a bit more delicate, because when curds are highly acidic, they don’t knit well together.)
The outcome? A cheese that's sourer, crumblier than a typical continental. If you’ve ever had Lancashire, Stilton, Cheshire, or Double Gloucester or Red Leicester, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, you should go out and change that as soon as possible. There’s nothing like a British Blue (but don’t tell my French friends).
Cutting a sample of cheese is more difficult than you might think. It becomes muscle memory, but until you've mastered it, you’re more prone to take out a massive chunk erroneously, scarring a beautiful block, from which it'll take careful subsequent cuts to resculpt it into one that looks good enough to sell. It really is an art.
Wrapping cheese is, in a way, a form of origami, a swift dance of hands and waxed paper to ensure that careful balance between maintaining humidity around the cheese and allowing it to breathe. The thing I always do when I store cheese at home is take a moment to wrap it nicely—like an important gift—in the same waxed paper from the cheese shop.
Once your cheese is safely wrapped, it should be kept in the refrigerator to slow the growth of mold on its cut surfaces. The caveat here is that refrigerated cheeses are more likely to dry out (especially if not wrapped well). So your best course of action is to keep the cheese well-wrapped in its paper within a box in the fridge. The container will help to prevent the cheese from drying out, and will also prevent it from absorbing flavors from the other foods in your fridge.
And if there’s space, then I usually put it in the crisper drawer, where it’s not likely to be next to anything with a strong scent that might affect the cheese, and it’s an area that typically has a cool, stable temperature.
If it’s easier for you to remember “don’ts” rather than “dos,” a simple storage rule is to avoid cling wrap. Your cheese wants to breathe, and wrapping it tightly in plastic will cause it to sweat, which will negatively affect the flavor. Plus, the moisture that forms is a quick way to entice mold.
Don’t be afraid if mold forms on a wedge of cheese in your fridge. It’s okay! Please, from one cheese lover to another: Do not throw the whole wedge of cheese away. Simply scrape off the mold, trim the wedge a bit if you’d like, and enjoy the rest.
Honestly, cheese is not nearly as finicky as most people think it is. Yes, it’s best to store it in the fridge to prevent mold, but you can leave it out at room temperature. In fact, when you're ready to enjoy the cheese, you should bring it back to room temperature before you eat it. Cold cheese can taste bland and inert. As a general rule of thumb, you should bring it out of the fridge a few hours before you plan to serve it. Also, you should keep your cheese wrapped while it comes to room temperature, to avoid any risk of drying out.
Customers at the dairy would often ask if they could (or should) eat the rinds of various cheeses, and I'd tell them that it’s completely up to the eater. Unless the rind is unpleasant to eat or quite hard, like a Parmesan, I’ll eat it. If I don’t eat it, I'll save it to add to soups or stocks later. Occasionally we’d get a specialty cheese with an unusual rind, like a blue wheel wrapped in leaves (in which case we'd just discard the leaves).
Cheese knives are another optional choice, totally up to the host. They can be fun and fancy, but it really doesn’t matter for the cheese itself. It might affect your dinner party atmosphere more than it would affect the taste and enjoyment of the cheese. We cheesemongers never used anything fancy at the shop, nor do we at home.
My only tip here is to avoid a sharp knife, like one you’d use to chop vegetables. There’s no need to risk slicing into your finger when what you’re after is just some tasty cheese.
Rinds and knives are a couple good examples of how cheese is less a scrupulous, nit-picking disciplinarian and more of an easy-going pal.
Some people can get a little insecure about putting together a cheese board. Traditionally, for a well-balanced platter, people will go for a blue cheese, a hard cheese (like a cheddar), and a soft cheese (perhaps Brie). But there are no rules. If you want a platter of all blues, or all cheddars, or all Bries, then go for it! Cheesemongers at least will not judge you if you don't select the "perfect" selection of diverse cheeses because there's no such thing.
This is the most important thing about cheese.
One thing about Londoners, I've noticed, is that they rarely ask for samples themselves—at least those who frequented NYD. Even when a person's dying to try some Montgomery’s Cheddar (having heard about the rolling, fertile English countryside on which the farms’ cows dine), etiquette may prevent them from asking before it's offered. You can see this kind of sociology when you compare the Tube and the New York City MTA; at least in my experience, it's much less common to strike up a conversation with a stranger in London than you would in New York. To cut through this formality, the cheesemongers at NYD deliberately welcome customers with open arms—or rather, with one outstretched arm, cheese sliver hanging off the end of a dull knife, and the words Try this.
Neal’s Yard Dairy’s sampling philosophy can best be described as: obligatory.
“We encourage people to eat cheese. It’s kind of the law,” says Katy Gunn, NYD's HR chief. “We help people appreciate what they put in their mouths,” adds David Lockwood, the general manager.
Appreciating cheese—and helping others to appreciate it—was my gateway to London's social fabric. When I first got here, I didn't know anyone. But what I've quickly learned is that an acknowledged shared interest, a mutual delight in something (like cheese), among a group of strangers is enough to crumble even the toughest interpersonal walls.
Teach a person how to taste cheese, and suddenly, that outsider is included. There's something so beautiful about that.