The big cheese

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

It’s British Cheese Week this week (24 September -2 October). To celebrated CD-Traveller gives you the low-down on Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy

Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy in London ­ and a walking cheese encyclopaedia has been credited with almost single-handedly saved the artisan (cheeses made by hand, not in a factory) and farmhouse cheese industry in England.

Randolph began making and selling yogurt and cheese as a summer job after graduating from university. (Queen Elizabeth College, Food Sciences and Chemistry, 1979). At the time, Neal’s Yard Dairy was owned by Nicholas Saunders, who had already started a bakery and whole foods warehouse in the yard and Monmouth Coffee Company on Monmouth Street. After a year, Hodgson agreed to take over as owner of the business.

When he first started at the Dairy, Randolph bought commercial cheese from a wholesaler to resell, but after a while realized that everything he was being sent was fairly boring and bland. One day he was sent a piece of Devon garland cheese from a farm cheese maker called Hilary Charnley and found it to be completely different.

Intrigued and interested to talk to another cheese maker, Randolph set off to visit her. She was able to direct him to other farms in the area that also made cheese, and, by the time Randolph returned to London, he had filled the car with cheese to sell in the shop.

Fired with enthusiasm and information from the cheese makers themselves, Randolph found these cheeses much easier and more interesting to sell. He made more visits to other parts of the country, met more cheese makers and started to sell more types of cheese. He learned about variation between batches and how important it was to select those with the flavours he liked best. He also learned that having selected the best cheese he could find, it was very important to store them properly and sell them when they tasted at their best. And finally, it was important to ask the customers what they thought. On his next visit, Randolph would then report their opinions back to the cheese makers, which has proved to be very valuable feedback. In the case of cheddar-makers, for example, the cheese could be six months older on the shop counter than when it had left the farm, and taste quite different.

In the mid 1980s, there was no longer enough space to make cheeses and mature cheeses in the same building. The cheese making side became a separate company, Neal’s Yard Creamery, and moved out first to Kent and later to Dorstone Hill in Herefordshire where Charlie Westhead runs it today. Following that, the Dairy itself moved out of Neal’s Yard, round the corner onto Shorts Gardens in 1992. Four years later, Neal’s Yard Dairy set up a warehouse in a venerable red brick building in Borough Market. Borough Market had been the site of a food market since the Roman times and with the input of Randolph and a couple of other wholesalers in the area, the Borough Food Market was set up. At first, it consisted of warehouse open days, then monthly markets and now the market is held every Friday and Saturday and has become known as the best destination for food shopping in London.

Today, Hodgson divides his week between his London shops (“You can have the best cheese in the world, but you still have to let the customer know about it” he once said) and visiting his suppliers. On his office wall is his cheese map, with red pins marking the farms. There’s a proliferation round the South West and Ireland, a smattering elsewhere and a faraway pin on Orkney. Hodgson regularly tastes each make, adjusting storage times accordingly and maybe making suggestions to the farmer. It’s a far cry from the pioneering days when Randolph’s business partner Saunders (who sadly died in 1998) had to call in the lady who ran the neighbouring coffee shop, and who possessed infinitely better taste buds, to sample the cheese. Randolph’s taste improved and he ended up marrying her!

Neal’s Yard Dairy Stores
17 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden, London, WC2 (020 7240 5700)
6 Park Street, Borough Market, London, E1 (020 7645 3554)

Did you know…

Neal’s Yard Dairy has nothing to do with the apothecary who has also have several shops in London.

Back in 1979 in its tiny Covent Garden premises, one of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s first customers was John Cleese, who dropped in to buy some cheese. However, Randolph Hodgson and fellow owner Nick Saunders were still learning how to make cheese and had only managed to make yoghurt that day!

Delia Smith is a customer.

Four to try

Resembles Swiss cheese in flavor, with a soft cheddar consistency. Sharp at the end with a hint of apples and a wonderful aftertaste.

It has a near Parmesan-hard texture with a subtle nutty flavor.

Similar to a French double- or triple-cream cheese.

Cashel Blue and Crozier Blue: Both similar to Roquefort. The former is sweet, and the latter – made with ewe’s milk – has a fiery flavor.


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