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Cheese Heaven: A tasting at London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy

Cheese tasting at Neal's Yard Dairy, London

Cheese has probably got to be my favourite food. Whether its a creamy goat’s cheese, a pungent Stilton, a runny Brie or a chunk of Cheddar melted on toast (with a bit of Marmite, my cheese on toast special ingredient), I love them all. And there’s one name guaranteed to make a cheese-lover’s mouth start watering – Neal’s Yard Dairy. The company was started in the 1970s in Neal’s Yard in Covent Garden. At the time the area was derelict and the rents were cheap after the food and veg market that dominated the area was moved to south London. Nicholas Saunders set up the dairy in 1979 selling their own yogurts and cheeses, as well as those from wholesalers. But not knowing much about these cheeses, it was harder to sell them, so the focus became more on selling cheese from small-scale producers and getting to know them and their produce. They now stock cheeses from 70 cheesemakers across the UK and Ireland and have expanded into a new site in Covent Garden and one next to Borough Market.

Bread and cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy cheese-tasting, London

One of the Neal's Yard Dairy cheeses

As well as selling cheese, Neal’s Yard also run cheese-tasting evenings, which got me interested. There are a whole range of different themes for the tasting events, like ‘Beer and Cheese’, ‘Mountain Cheeses’ or ‘England v Italy’. I went for the ‘Modern Traditionals’ tasting, with new interpretations of classic British cheeses – from Cheddar to Caerphilly to Stilton. The tastings give you the chance to learn about the way cheese is made, and most importantly to taste a whole load of it. Tastings are held in the warehouse above the Neal’s Yard Dairy just next to Borough Market. A group of 12 of us gathered around a table headed by tutor Jane Hastings, who has been working in the cheese industry for over 10 years and knows almost everything you could ever want to know about the stuff.

Neal's Yard Dairy cheese-tasting, London

The tasting table

We were each presented with a plate full of 10 cheeses, set out in a wheel shape, starting with goat’s cheese at the top and going around to blue cheese at the end. To go with them there were plenty of accompaniments from other Borough Market producers – bread from St John, apples from Chegworth Valley farm, as well as chutneys and damson jelly, plus plenty of red and white wine. We learnt a bit about the history of Neal’s Yard (it’s a big test of your powers of restraint trying to listen with all that cheese sitting in front of you) before starting the tasting. For each of the cheeses, Jane told us the story behind the producers and about how the cheese is made.

Bread and butter at Neal's Yard Dairy cheese-tasting, London

Accompaniments from other Borough Market producers

We started off with the St Tola goat’s cheese, then went on to the Camembert-style soft Tunworth, and then onto a Caerphilly and Red Leicester. Which brings me to my cheese fact no 1 – why is Red Leicester red? Well apparently it is dyed using Annatto, a tree seed which gives a bright orange colour. Originally cheese produced in the high peaks on the continent in the summer had a brighter yellow colour and a better flavour than the paler winter cheese. So the winter cheesemakers used Annatto to fool their customers into thinking their cheese was made in summer. Very sneaky. Then from the Red Leicester it was on to the Parmesan-style sheep’s milk cheese Berkswell, a cheddar and two washed-rind cheeses. Somewhere in this section we all started to realise that even cheese-lovers have a limit on how much they can eat (apart from the guy next to me that is who valiantly stuffed his way through the whole plateful). The pace of eating slowed way down and I was left wishing I’d brought a container for the leftovers.

Cheese plate at Neal's Yard Dairy cheese-tasting, London

Working my way through the huge cheese plate (and wine)

And finally we were at the blues. I love blue cheese so had been trying to save a bit of room for these two – a Colston Bassett Stilton and a Stichelton. Stilton has strict rules about its production. It has to be made in the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire (so if you live in the village of Stilton itself you can’t actually make the cheese there as it’s in Cambridgeshire!) and it has to use pasturised milk. The Colston Bassett is a traditional Stilton, and the way it melted in the mouth made it my favourite cheese of the night. Whereas the Stichelton is made in the same way, but uses raw milk so can’t call itself Stilton. So the producers have cleverly used the old word for the town of Stilton and called their cheese Stichelton. And with those two polished off we were done – stuffed full of cheese, wine and information and heading back out into the cold London night.

Blue cheese at Neal's Yard Dairy cheese-tasting, London

Nearly there - the last two blue cheeses

My top tips for the tasting: Go hungry, and take a box or bag to take away the leftovers as you probably won’t be able to finish it all. Also pace yourself and resist the temptation to stuff yourself with the first few or you won’t appreciate the last ones. And finally, prepare yourself for a night of strange dreams!

You can find out more information about the cheese tastings on the Neal’s Yard website. Most of the tastings cost £50 per person and last about two hours.

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24 Comments Post a comment
  1. This looks awesome!

    February 7, 2012
    • It was great, though don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much cheese, even I had to have a few days off afterwards!

      February 7, 2012
  2. Lovely post Lucy – cheesy but in a good way! Now I need to go and get myself some lunch…

    February 7, 2012
    • They have some great cheeses, not cheap but worth a visit and they’ll usually let you taste a bit in the shop too.

      February 7, 2012
  3. What a great way to spend an evening! I have done the wine tasting nights, but cheese….you had my mouth watering. Yum.

    February 7, 2012
    • Cheese and wine together too, it’s a great combination!

      February 7, 2012
  4. Yep now I’m hungry for cheese and only have some supermarket cheddar in the fridge!

    February 7, 2012
    • Every time I look at the photos they make me hungry! Didn’t stock up when I was there though so supermarket cheddar is as good as it gets here too.

      February 7, 2012
  5. Love Neal’s Yard, one of my favourite cheese places in London and the world. My favourite at their place is the Habourne Blue, a great goats milk blue cheese. Amazing goats flavours with great spicy blue kick.

    February 7, 2012
    • Ooh, we didn’t try that one – I’ve been looking for a blue goat’s cheese for ages though. I had some in France once and haven’t been able to find anything similar in the UK, but will give this one a try next time I’m at Neal’s Yard. Thanks.

      February 7, 2012
  6. Cheese and win = heaven! What a fab thing to do 🙂

    February 7, 2012
    • Such a good combination, though even I was beaten by the amounts they came out with!

      February 7, 2012
  7. I am in cheese heaven reading this post. I can only imagine the cheese heaven you were in at the time!

    February 8, 2012
    • Thanks Emily, it was fantastic, I’m tempted to do some of the other tastings though might have to burn off the last lot first!

      February 8, 2012
  8. A great post – NYD is one of my favourite foodie places here in London (it helps my cheese addiction that my cousin is a cheesemongor there!) One question – having eaten so much cheese, how were your dreams that night?!

    February 8, 2012
    • Wow, you lucky thing, I so need to get to know an employee! I wasn’t sure if the dream thing was true or not but mine were really vivid so maybe there’s something in it!

      February 8, 2012
  9. A great read – The British Cheese Board (seriously, it exists) once did a study into which cheeses cause which types of dreams. The soft Italian cheeses give me the strangest ones.

    February 8, 2012
    • I looked the study up and they found Stilton gives you crazy dreams, Red Leicester makes dream of childhood and Cheshire stops you dreaming at all – though not sure how scientific this study was!

      February 8, 2012
  10. Cheese and wine and baguettes, go together; humm… I had to have some brie while reading this, could not resist. LOL
    I must keep this article in mind whenever I’m in London again!

    February 17, 2012
    • I can’t resist cheese either! Would definitely recommend at least a trip to the store if you can’t make the tasting evening next time you’re in London.

      February 19, 2012
  11. If you like cheese, u gotta visit Switzerland!

    February 27, 2012
    • I used to date a Swiss guy for a while and had a few trips out there, the cheese really is amazing!

      February 27, 2012

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