A Very Neal’s Yard Dairy Christmas

For just over a week at the end of December, I was back in the wellies; back at the Neal’s Yard Dairy coal face.  I was working in the Covent Garden shop with Martin Tkalez, Nathan Coyte and Adam Verlander.  It was knackering but it was really, really good fun.  The shop was well organised, the atmosphere busy but controlled, friendly and high spirited. I have, since, slept for practically the whole 12 days of Christmas, but I had a great time.
People buy a lot of cheese at Christmas and they tend to make a special trip to the 2 Neal’s Yard Dairy shops in Covent Garden or Borough Market because, even in these austerity times, splashing out a bit on some nice cheese is a treat… and after all it is Christmas.  In my full time days at Neal’s Yard, I would explain to friends and family that it got very busy; that consequently I was very busy.  They all nodded sympathetically and seemingly understood, but you could tell that they didn’t really.  They suggested meeting up for drinks or tried to hold social events and invited me, little realising that I had cheese to sell!  Didn’t they know I had just worked 14 hours without a lunch break and didn’t have a day off until Christmas Day.  When I did turn up (inevitably late) to any of the functions, I was in a slightly shell-shocked world of my own.  I felt as though I was looking at my nearest and dearest from an out-of-body height.  They smiled, laughed and chatted happily amongst themselves while I tried to join in and also tried not to fall asleep in my food / pint.
Days were regimented and organised.  Up at 5 or earlier, no hanging about, straight into the shower, dressed, out the door.  A lull while the train / bus / tube did its thing then into the shop or office.  15 minutes for the necessary strong coffee (thank god for sister company Monmouth Coffee Company) and then… Showtime!  Be it retail, or more often in my case mail order, it was time to turn on the adrenaline and get going. Evenings, too, were a business like affair: head home, cook food that had been purchased especially for its quick cooking appeal, wash up (because if you don’t do it right there and then it won’t be done till January), all the while calculating at what hour I needed to be in bed, in order to get enough sleep, before I had to get up at godawful o’clock the following day.
It sounds like a nightmare when I list it like that, but the thing is, it wasn’t.  It was a lot of fun and it certainly was team building.  After your colleagues and you had been banded together through the battle campaign that was a Neal’s Yard Dairy cheese-selling Christmas, you were thick as thieves.  You’d been on the front line together selling that Stichelton to literally hundreds of people a day.  There was a bond there.  On the memorable 2 years that the country was hit by massive snowfall (the winters of 2009 and 2010) when I was in charge of mail order, my man Friday Flynn Hall had keeled over with a nasty bout of chicken pox, over 45% of our deliveries were delayed due to weather conditions and I had around 900 anxious customers who were afraid of Christmas without their Colston Bassett to reassure, it was more than our well laid plans could handle. Jason Hinds (sales director and my direct boss) had to come to my rescue, help field the phone calls, help strategise and probably most important of all, did this with irrepressibly positive spirit and enthusiasm.  Of all the baptisms of fire Christmas has thrown at me, this was the hottest.  By hometime on Christmas Eve, I was so grateful, I would probably have taken a bullet for him.
You think on your feet, you react, you solve problems on the run and at the speed of light, but it isn’t flying by the seat of your pants. You have also planned for this one month of December since the end of the last one.  You see your plans, thoughts and decisions tested and delivering success and probably the most important thing for me is this:  you do your damndest to give all of the hundreds of people, to whom you are selling, the very best cheese and the very best service they have had in their lives.  Just being ok is absolutely not good enough when they have made a special effort to get to the shops or have chosen the mail order.  You fight for your department’s rights to the best cheese.  No matter how many people you have spoken to that day, you listen to your customer carefully, get to know their likes and dislikes and advise them accordingly.  In the case of mail order, you get their orders packed up perfectly and you follow up every single delivery online and track them until you know they have got to the right place.  They didn’t have to choose Neal’s Yard.  Waitrose cheese is really pretty good these days as are numerous little delis around the country.  Some of the latter are excellent in fact.  These people chose Neal’s Yard because they perceive it as a Christmas treat, so you make bloody sure it is.
I hate doing things badly.  It’s a question of pride to do things as well as I can.  The importance Neal’s Yard puts on its customer service, really plays to that instinct in me.  It was a happy marriage.
So a week back in Covent Garden was busy, exhausting but fun.  Jokes bantered back and forth.  Cheese was cut. 50lb wheels of Cheddar were hauled around and chopped up into 2kg pieces for display.  Stiltons and Sticheltons were halved, quartered and chopped up continuously.  Customers queued down the street stretching past the shop window and obliterating the doorway of the shop next door (oops – sorry Cambridge Satchel Company) and yet waiting time didn’t exceed 20 minutes in all that time.  While they waited, customers were fed cheese and are chatted to by the ‘door person’ who then directed them to the next free monger when it was their turn to be served.  The busy atmosphere bred energy as the week inevitably built to what had been predicted as the busiest day.  This year it was Friday 21st (luckily the world didn’t end).  The 2 Neal’s Yard shops in that one day sold £75,000 of cheese.  Gobsmacking is the only word that springs to mind.
That makes it 2 Christmases since leaving that I have returned for a fix of the Neal’s Yard Christmas Experience.  Part of me actually yearns for more of the sort of Christmas build up I remember from the pre Neal’s Yard days, decorating the tree on Christmas Eve whilst listening to the Carols from Kings on the radio, making mince pies, making Christmas puddings, really enjoying the Christmas preparations and wrapping presents ahead of time rather than on Christmas morning.  But it’s a hard habit to shift.  Who knows, I might yet don the white wellies again….if they’ll have me back.
the infamous Christmas Queue courtesy of the Rockets & Rayguns blog on Tumblr

For Anyone who has ever worked in Marketing…

Dear Cheese lover
My name is Donald Coyle and I’m writing to you today to tell about what’s great about the Cheesier Cheese Cheese Company.
Unlike so many cheese companies that pretend to deal in real cheese selling ludicrously named processed gimmicks like Kermit’s Lancashire and Quirkes Cheddar we only deal with genuine traditional cheeses like Mrs Cobblebottom’s Old traditional Double Wensleydale with chive and balsamic tomatoes. We believe too much of today’s cheese market is dominated by marketing men full of advertising speak and Armani suits that’s why all our marketing men wear smocks, straw hats and mutter in an authentic Somerset drawl (some even sound like they’ve been to Norfolk!).When dealing with traditionally made cheeses that have been matured for, in some cases, as long as three weeks, it is essential to educate the public; take them by the hand, so to speak, and let them walk with you through the cheese garden and smell the various cheese flowers and smile as the cheesy bees spread the cheese pollen and turn the cheeslets flowers into big mummy and daddy cheese fruit.
Take, for example, Old Mr Skruttock’s blue-veined, log. Most people are surprised that it’s not blue at all, more a brown colour with a lumpy curd structure not unlike a poorly made bar of chocolate. In fact only last week someone visited our shop in the old quarter of the Millennium Business Park for Innovation and dropped their log right outside our door. Our specially trained staff of Innuit cheesemongers had their lab coats and visors off in a flash, but could not catch the woman in time to tell her how great Old Skruttock’s log is grilled and tossed into salad or grated on some fish.

Besides customer service we believe in getting the right product. Selection is vital. To this end we demand only the latest, up-to-date catalogues before we make any purchase. Selection is also part of getting to know your supplier, putting a face to the name, photographing it and keeping it on file. I can remember when I was a junior sales executive meeting my first supply-client in a lay-by off the old A30, I was so excited, he a little nervous and undernourished and after we convinced him there was no means of escape we got on like a house on fire, which was ironic as his house burned down soon after and he found himself cooling his heels at Her Majesty’s Pleasure before we could pay him for the eighteen wheels of his exquisite rabbit liver Cheddar he had in the bucket of his digger. We gave all his thirteen children a place to live and work for only a nominal fee – I mean, what are friends for.

So the next time you fancy some real cheese, pop down to your local chemist and try some Old Mother Scuzzbucket’s little goats’ milk cretins, or scoop up some of Brian Problem’s runny Brie-style cheese – Brian’s Runny Problem (not suitable for pregnant ladies, old people, young people, middle-aged people or small animals) and enjoy.

Enjoy

Donald Coyle

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(I can’t lay claim to this particular masterpiece.  It is the work of one Dominic Coyte, cheese legend, formerly of Neal’s Yard Dairy and now to be found selling Comte at the Borough Cheese Company in either Borough Market or the Maltby Street area.  Dom, I salute you.  This little piece of writing dashed off one afternoon is, for me, the gift that just keeps on giving.)

Cheese in Bra

No, not an unfortunate sartorial incident in the cheese world, Cheese is in fact a 4 day festival organised by the Slow Food movement in Italy to celebrate all things milk related.  And Bra is a mid-sized town near Cuneo in Piedmont.  That’s not to say, of course, that the English speaking visitors and exhibitors at said festival haven’t had the odd snigger over the idea in years past.

(A cobbled street in the ‘centro storico’ of Bra, leading to the main piazzas 
and all those cheese stands)

Bra is a self contained town with enough of its own industry to mean it doesn’t rely on Slow Food for its trade and existence.  It existed before Carlo Petrini started the movement and it continues to maintain its independence.  That said though, I doubt even in Italy it would have quite the same amount of good food and restaurants if it weren’t for the Slow Food movement having its headquarters here.  Then, every 2 years the town puts on a homage to all things Cheese and quite literally the entire town dedicates itself to the promotion of cheese.  Talks and tastings are held in some of the baroque buildings that form the older centre of Bra, its streets and piazzas become a market for cheese makers (particularly those who Slow Food have designated worthy of Presidia status – a protection for a highly artisan or unusual cheese that is in danger of dying out) and cheese maturers or retailers such as my erstwhile colleagues Neal’s Yard Dairy.

(The NYD stand this year, Stilton side)

Neal’s Yard Dairy has been selling cheese in Bra since 2003.  Randolph first visited the fair 2 years before that to help out a friend, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans who had been due to give a talk there and was unable to get a flight post 9/11.  He was simply struck by the unique atmosphere of the place and the abundance of interesting cheeses and people there – completely unlike any trade show or food show held in the UK.  The town is entirely welcoming to its huge influx of visitors too with local shops getting behind the idea and theming their displays around cheese for the duration of the fiera.  If this was the UK, much as I hate to talk my country down, there would be groups of people moaning about parking and rubbish and the disruption to their daily routines.

(The butcher up near the Hotel Cavalieri getting into the spirit of Cheese.  
For those who like to know this sort of thing,
 this is where Giorgio Cravero buys his salsiccia di Bra.)

When we took the first stand in 2003 we noticed further benefits too.  Italians of all walks of life have a much more extensive vocabulary to describe food than the Brits, they are interested and keen to try new things and pretty forthright about saying what they think be it good or bad.  For a shop that values feedback, these comments on  our cheeses are hugely interesting.  There was also the minor consideration that as a place to meet and socialise with wholesale customers, the atmosphere of Bra can’t be bettered.  Maybe it’s all that Italian Dolce Vita, or ready access to Barolo, or the cafe society but people drop by and chat in a much more relaxed way than they ever do at any trade fair in the UK or USA and simply by enjoying a coffee together and having a chat, great ideas can spring up in a completely natural and unpressured way.

This year was my first year out there as a cheesemaker.  Before leaving NYD, Jason Hinds who had basically been my boss, asked if I’d join them on the stand as I’m an Italian speaker and, more to the point, I suspect, if I was there, my Italian speaking and absolute Trojan parents would be more likely to come along too and help explain and taste out cheeses to the Italian public.  As such, of course, there is a different perspective to the one you have as a cheesemonger.  I particularly wanted to know what they thought of the cheese and had a sneaky feeling they might well like it.  This proved to be the case.  I was waiting for people to come back with comments for improvements, over salted, too strong etc but didn’t really hear much of that.  On the contrary I did hear that pretty much everyone liked it.  To say that was a big pat on the back would be understating it really.  Of course the batches had been deliberately selected by Bronwen and the buying team to appeal to the Italian palate (a bit more adventurous and raucous than the UK) but between her selection and our cheesemaking, we made them happy.

With that established, the next thing I enjoyed while out there was meeting former colleagues and the wider family of the NYD network.  Mateo and Andy from Jasper Hill in Vermont were out there with their families, Joe Schneider and his Stichelton team were on the stand (naturally), Caroline and Will who make Stawley, Julie Cheyney formerly of Tunworth, Kate Arding who I worked with back in my early NYD days and who is now part of the Culture Magazine team, Val Bines, Jamie Montgomery, Mary Holbrook… I could go on and on.  It is a bit like in part a great big reunion of a lot of people you really want to chat to and you sell cheese and talk about your different cheeses altogether.  Yes it’s definitely an occasion for the cheese geek but as such it’s very rewarding and interesting.

(The 2 Joes (Schneider and Bennet) talk cheese over a beer in a quiet moment on the stand)

And have I mentioned the eating out possibilities yet?  Not only is this Italy but it’s Piedmont, widely regarded as one of the best areas of Italy for food and wine and everyone is putting on the classic dishes over this weekend: vitello tonnato (veal with a tuna emulsion basically), vegetable souffles, fresh tajarin (thin tagliatelle) with butter and sage, hand pinched ravioli (agnolotti del plin), carne cruda (thinly chopped raw rose veal with olive oil), salsiccia di bra (raw rose veal sausages – seriously don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it they are addictive), meat braised in Barolo and panna cotta.  And then there’s Caffe Converso, the ONLY place in Bra to get your coffee and pastries with its wood panelled walls and the little shop next door selling home made chocolates, nougat and their own chestnut cream and upmarket Nutella.

(Caffe Converso – a place of pilgrimage)

All this and the chance to learn about other cheeses and try new things too.  The Strada dei Presidii is the road along which the endangered cheeses are displayed.  This ranges from the weird and wonderful like Swedish goats cheese, smoked cheese from Poland, to the more recognisable like Bitto an Italian mountain cheese like an aged and drier Gruyere or Sbrinz and finally Somerset Cheddar represented by Montgomerys, Keens and Westcombe.  Cheddar may not initially seem an endangered cheese but given that it is ubiquitously used as a name for hard block cheese these days, the Somerset Cheddar boys are claiming the name back for those still making cheese in the original county of Somerset and following an old fashioned and traditional recipe.

(Swedish goats cheese and a somewhat impressive poster of the goats!) 
(Romanian cheeses matured in fir bark and Polish smoked cheeses) 
(Bitto – the Italian mountain cheese)

For anyone with even a passing interest in all things Cheese that hasn’t discovered it yet, this fair is worth the trip.  See you there in 2013!

For another perspective on the Cheese event and more pics too have a look at Justine’s blog littlemisslocal.com

Milk – the most underrated food in the world

So many people have either decided they don’t really like milk as a drink or just don’t think about it other than to put a bit in their tea or coffee.  When you taste the sort of milk you buy at the corner shop or in the supermarket frankly that’s not a surprise.  What comes out of those cartons is watery, vaguely mineral in flavour if you can really detect a flavour and when it goes sour, it’s chemical, aggressive and unpleasant.When I worked at Neal’s Yard Dairy, we used to hold regular tastings of the milk from our supplier Geoff Bowles at Ivy House Farm.  While this milk was and indeed still is pasteurised, it’s Jersey milk, organically farmed and has a whole heap more flavour than your standard supermarket pint.  Jersey milk has higher fat and protein levels than regular milk which more than likely comes from a rather intensively farmed Holstein herd and is therefore what people in the dairy world refer to as white water.  As I mentioned in the post about cows, Holsteins are very efficient producers of large amounts of milk but it’s not milk that’s particularly rich in fats and proteins and let’s face it, that’s where the flavour is.  Jersey milk therefore has a much richer and creamier mouthfeel but even in the skimmed milk because it has more protein too, it has much more flavour.  We tasted the milks side by side and the Ivy House Jersey milk was naturally sweet, creamy, savoury and mineral.  The supermarket (probably Costcutter actually cause that was the nearest corner shop / mini supermarket) milk was thinner textured and had none of the sweetness or savoury flavours more of a mineral that verged on the metallic.  In part this will be down to the breed of animal but also the freshness.  We knew that our milk delivered to us on one day would have come from the milking the day before.  With the supermarket milk who knows how old it was by the time we bought it.  It would have been collected from various farms, pasteurised all together with lots of other milk and bottled, sent to a distribution centre and from then out to the shops.  It was more likely to be a few days old at least.Since moving away from London and getting access to really fresh milk (minutes old in fact) that is unpasteurised into the bargain I can safely say that the difference between what I’m making cheese with and what you put in your coffee is like night and day.  In fact it’s hardly fair to even call them by the same name.  Of couse I’m working with sheeps milk which is different to cows milk in consistency, it can have rich and creamy fat content but because of the way the fats are structured, it doesn’t feel heavy and the savouriness has a different flavour because it’s sheepy in a subtle and fresh way rather than say beefy.  Those are tricky adjectives because truthfully that is what I find it to taste like but equally I can see those who are unconvinced by milk not warming to the idea of a rich sheepy or beefy thirstquencher.  Anyway, pressing on regardless, I shall continue.  My main point is that if you ever try unpasteurised truly fresh milk it is a revelation.  It has sweetness, fresh, clean creaminess, savoury animal flavours and and mineral restraint but as well as that, it has another aspect in that it tastes lively, which is perhaps a reflection of the freshness.  Supermarket milk with its age and pasteurisation is flat even at worst case perhaps slightly stale tasting.  Geoff Bowles’s milk had sweetness, creaminess and rich savouriness but damn fine stuff though it was and is, by comparison to milk that’s unpasteurised and just milked a few minutes ago, it had lost an edge.

Of all the foods that have lost their character by industrialising the manufacturing process, which include bread, beer, hydroponically grown veg, flavourless battery-farmed chicken and plenty of others too, I now feel that milk is the one that has suffered most in the loss of flavour and perception.  The fact is, most people who reckon they don’t like it, would happily drink a glass of the milk Nicola and Martin produce because it’s bloody delicious.

Milk being piped into the vat from the milking parlour – minutes old.

Hospital Corners

It’s been a crazy few weeks since the last post on the 22nd May with Cartmel Races and Holker Festival pulling all hands to the shop and leaving me a cheesemaking flying solo a lot of the time.  However just because at the end of that I haven’t really had the spare brain to write anything, doesn’t mean that work has not been being done.  Far from it in fact.Shortly after the last post we had a visit from the Neal’s Yard Dairy crew which on that occasion were Bronwen (the buyer), David (one of the directors), Sarah (cheese maturation and allocation of correct age profile and flavour profile for each sales department) and Charlie who works in the shops.  They came with an issue to discuss – moisture levels in the cheese and drainage.  This of course was something we were looking at ourselves but the issues at NYD were that they were maturing the cheeses longer and finding on the cheeses from end of April that they became very very runny at the rind to the extent in fact that the rinds weren’t stable and fell off very easily if handled.  Unfortunately we hadn’t had that issue ourselves in our stores but certainly it was a problem.  We shared a few ideas about storage (are we storing drier than them?) and age of selling but ultimately didn’t reach a conclusion, especially as we’d made quite a few changes since the end of April already.  By the time of the visit we’d moved on from turning out cheese from the moulds onto shelves on day 2 to having a day draining on racks in the dairy in the moulds still then a day draining on racks again while 1 side is salted, then on day 4 finally making it onto the shelves for salting on the other side and then after that on day 5 a further day out on shelves to allow a nice coating of yeasts and fledgling B. linens to grow before they went into the cold store.  Since that visit we have also turned the cold store up a little so the temperature is warmer and the rinds develop quicker.

However having heard back from London and given that we’d been worrying about drainage now for a few weeks, I decided to go for advice to the dynamic cheese duo of Hodgson & Cordle (Randolph Hodgson & Dr Jemima Cordle that is) who had visited Martin earlier in the year to get him started with the MT36 starters and had given some advice on use of the cloth liners to the moulds to help get better drainage.  They had made their own test cheese and taken it away with them after the day but the experiment had made them both feel strongly that using the cloths enough was pretty key.

First off I checked whether they had done more cloth faffage (pulling really) than we were currently doing and at what intervals it had been done.  Pretty much the same as we were doing, yet their cheese had ended up pretty darn dry (admittedly partly due to being kept in an unrefrigerated and unhumidified environment but partly drainage) whereas ours most definitely weren’t.  It had also had a close knit texture and again that wasn’t something our cheeses were doing at the time – they were quite open textured.

Going back then to ask what they’d done differently, Randolph came back with the suggestion of pulling the cloths tighter.  He said ‘We are talking about hospital corners and taught sheets’.

The aim of the exercise therefore was to give a squeeze and put pressure on the curd rather than agitate it.  Fortified with the information I set off to give it a go the following day and pulled the cloths up so damn tightly that every morning still (as the cloth pulling continues to be tight) I have fingers that won’t bend properly from the muscles being so stiff.  And I have to say it did work and continues to work.  It also highlighted that we really needed new cloths as the older ones had weakened through use and were ripping with every cloth pull.  More were on order and in fact had been for a fortnight but the suppliers were being rather slow about getting them to us.  Even with daily chasing, it took a further 10 days for them to arrive!

So what has the change been?  Well there’s still the odd bit where the curd doesn’t knit together.  The problem with relying on cloth pulling so much for drainage is that if your tension isn’t equal across the cloth and the whole side of the cheese then you get a less drained area.  Sometimes the constraints of the space you’re working around on the draining table and number of moulds you need to fit onto it, just means that some are harder to get at and work with than others.  As a general rule though, they are more closely knit together in texture and certainly smaller at the end of the day than the cheeses I used to make.

We just had a follow up visit from Bronwen and the NYD crew this time with Joe Schneider (Stichelton cheesemaker for those of you who don’t already know) which meant our discussion had another point of view in the mix too and was very interesting.  Joe also uses cloth liners when draining his curd although they are used at a different stage and before the curd makes it into the moulds, but it means he knows what the aim of the exercise is.  That is, reducing free moisture (pockets of it in the open texture of the cheese) so that the starter bacteria can’t continue acidifying the curd as much and as a result the curd retains calcium.  If there’s enough calcium, the curd will hold onto moisture but it will be locked into the curd structure and will allow for the cheese to breakdown better during maturing.  If there’s too much acidity, the calcium dissolves and the curd, having lost its calcium, has less ability to lock in that moisture and it won’t break down so well.   Or to put in another way, here is what Jemima Cordle emailed to me as an explanation and I won’t try to paraphrase any further:

‘Basically the quantity of calcium left in your final curd along with the moisture content give you your texture. The more calcium you have the more elastic or rubbery the cheese will be. British cheeses contain less calcium than the continental types due to the fact that the curd that makes them loses its moisture over a greater portion of the acidity increase.  The curd that makes Comte for instance loses most of its moisture before the pH has dropped further than  6.5 whereas for cheddar to reach the equivalent moisture level the pH will have got down to about 6.0. The bit of chemistry that is important is that as the pH decreases calcium is released from the casein into the surrounding whey. As the whey is lost the calcium goes with it.
It is this loss of calcium that gives all our cheeses their characteristic textures so it is important to achieve. However it is very easy to overdo. If too much moisture is still being lost when the pH is much below 6.0 too much calcium will be released and the cheese will end up being chalky. It will also be dry because the decalcified curd cannot hold the moisture correctly.
More often than not this happens because too much starter is added so that the curd acidifies too quickly for the drainage to keep up and the moisture is not got out in time. In the case of St James, with the starter quantity you are using, this is not an issue as long as you give the curd the help it needs to drain.’
The help needed is those cloths and making sure they are hospital bed tight.
It’s been a fun & exciting few weeks as well as a crazy few weeks!
Cheeses just ladled and ready to start draining.  Photo taken on 21st May and I’ve been cutting and ladling smaller pieces since then too which also helps drainage.
Drained cheeses the following morning, also from 21st May.  The cheeses with cloths pulled tighter are about half the height of these ones.