FOOD & DRINK / Big cheese in small dairies: Emily Green meets Randolph Hodgson, champion of the small producer, who also runs one of the best cheese shops in the country

Caerphilly cheese never much appealed to Randolph Hodgson - until 1980, when the proprietor of Fratelli Camisa, an Italian delicatessen in Fitzrovia, central London, advised him to put it in a cardboard box, dampen the box occasionally and turn it frequently to allow the cheese to age and the texture to become creamy.

Once Mr Hodgson realised that traditional British cheeses were not supposed to be under-ripe, dry and tasteless, he had the good grace to develop the best cheese cellar in the country. The public will buy more than 4 1/2 tons of stilton alone from it in the lead-up to Christmas.

Neal's Yard Dairy opened in 1979, a spin-off from the wholefood empire set up in a dilapidated Covent Garden courtyard that was scheduled for demolition. Mr Hodgson, just out of university, originally viewed his involvement in the new business as a summer job. The wholefoodies who ran the dairy had intended it to be a vehicle for producing and marketing their own goat's cheese and Greek-style yoghurt (Mr Hodgson met his wife when she came in to complain about that yoghurt). Business was slow. 'We used to sit around waiting for customers,' he says. Within a year he had taken over, and now he runs the dairy independently.

He decided to diversify, and one day received an intriguing cheddar by post. Soon he was off to Somerset in a 2CV. One cheesemaker led to another. He concentrated on 'new wave' cheesemakers in and around the arts and crafts community of Totnes in Devon, and more or less ignored the Midlands and North - until, in 1984, they came to him in the shape of Lancelot Appleby, an octogenarian cheesemaker. Mr Appleby arrived in the shop, slammed a 45lb cheshire down on the counter and said: 'Here, lad, try that.' It tasted great, Mr Hodgson recalls.

Mr Appleby was typical of the traditional artisans whose cheeses did not get to market. 'There was one agent handling farmhouse cheeses. There was an immense amount, and the agent viewed them as difficult: they were bound in cloth, they had grotty rinds, they tasted of something.' Neal's Yard staff now make fortnightly 'cheese runs' to farms in England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, as far north as Orkney. And in Mr Hodgson the smallest and most vulnerable cheesemakers have found their most powerful advocate.

Ministers and policy units seek his advice. He is sometimes the first to tell them (as with the listeria scare) that the food poisoning risk posed by cheese is statistically minute; and that, contrary to popular prejudice, it is not posed by unpasteurised cheese. 'Every major listeria and food poisoning outbreak that has been traced to cheese has been traced to a pasteurised cheese,' he says.

He is qualified to make this sort of statement: his degree from London University is in food science and chemistry. And his is the voice of a calm historian. Consider an account he wrote for the Neal's Yard newsletter of his dealings with a Mrs Longstaff, one of the few remaining cheesemakers in the Pennine valleys.

'She lived with her husband high on the sides of the dale and kept two cows, an Ayrshire and a Friesian. She milked the cows for about nine months of the year and made one cheese a day. The size of the cheese depended on the amount of milk available.

'Her recipe, technique and equipment were inherited from her mother and were basically unchanged for 100 years . . . Cheesemaking to Mrs Longstaff was no different from baking bread or making a cake; it was another daily job. (Her) cheese was usually sold at Leyburn market - at least, until the dealer from London came.

'Initially we were treated with great suspicion; we were left on the doorstep in the sleet while the cheese was brought from the kitchen. On later trips, the atmosphere warmed, although Mr Longstaff barely said a word in six years of regular visits . . .

'Mrs Longstaff, like a stern schoolmarm with grey hair coiled in a bun, would look on with pride as we inspected her cheeses. They would be laid out in the front room with the weight written in pencil on the top of each. I was presented with a scrap of paper with a long list of all the weights in pounds and ounces, which I had to add up without a calculator. 'You don't use a reckoning box?' she asked suspiciously on an early visit. She stood looking over my shoulder as I did the sums, with her answer already done and hidden in her hand.'

Neal's Yard now stocks 65 farmhouse cheeses (cow's milk, goat's milk, ewe's milk, blue, hard, soft, semi-soft), some from the humblest of smallholdings, others from big producers. Its newsletter describes each cheese and producer in detail, be it a new one, such as the Flower Marie, a semi-soft ewe's milk cheese from Lewes, Sussex, or the delicious, hard Spenwood from Berkshire.

The stilton, from Colston Bassett & District Dairy, is delicious this year. It will taste better than the mini-stiltons that are all rind and price-tag; and markedly better than the same make from the same dairy bought in a supermarket. The reason is simple: Neal's Yard does not slice it immature, shrink-wrap it, slap on a sell-by date and hang it in a chill cabinet. It nurtures it.

This takes discipline. The shop may look rustic, but it is highly organised. Its cool, luminous, foggy atmosphere is no accident. Staff wear gumboots because the floor is soaked regularly to maintain the required minimum of 80 per cent humidity. Yet more moisture is pumped from a humidifying system. The wooden shelves heave with rough-rinded cheeses, each of them dated.

To check their ripeness, they are regularly pricked with irons, tasted and re-plugged. I watched Mr Hodgson test a batch of stiltons, all made at the same place on the same day, all held in Neal's Yard since August, all good, but all noticeably different. He was looking for a full, creamy - as opposed to crumbly - texture, and checking on the blueing that will appear when the rind is punctured to allow air to circulate through the curd.

Every cheese is turned every other day, to assist even ripening, and this alone requires the efforts of two members of staff. Mr Hodgson has the foresight to realise that a real-cheese renaissance cannot be achieved without the help of trained assistants. The training is exemplary: employees go on cheese runs, taste all the cheeses they sell, rotate not only cheeses but also jobs - and also receive one of the few fair wages in catering.

This sense of fairness is extended to the public. 'We want the customers to choose what they want. We're not out to flog them things they're not sure about,' he said.

Neal's Yard Dairy, 17 Shorts Gardens, London WC2 (071-379 7646). Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm, Sun 11am-5pm.

Also recommended:

Bath: Fine Cheese Company, 29 Walcot Street (0225 483407).

Belfast: Cargoes, 613 Lisburn Road, Belfast (0232 665451).

Co Tipperary: Country Choice, Neenagh (010 353 067 32596).

Dublin: Douglas Food Co, Donnybrook, Dublin 4 (010 3531 269 4066).

East London: Jones Dairy, 23 Ezra Street (off Columbia Road), London E2 (071-739 5372).

West London: Jeroboams, 24 Bute Street, SW7 (071-225 2232) and 51 Elizabeth Street SW1 (071- 823 5623).

Sally Clarke, 122 Kensington Church Street, W8 (071-229 2190).

North London: Cheeses, 13 Fortis Green Road, N10 (081-444 9141).

South London: Vivian's, 2 Worple Way, Richmond (081-940 3600).

Edinburgh: Iain Mellis Cheesemonger, 30a Victoria Street, Edinburgh (031 226 6215).

Newcastle, Real Cheese Shop, 6 Oldgate, Morpeth, Northumberland (0670 505555).

Totnes: Ticklemore Cheese, 1 Ticklemore, Totnes, Devon (0803 865926).

(Photograph omitted)

News
news

Emergency call 'started off dumb, but got pretty serious'

Sport
Erik Lamela celebrates his goal
football

Argentinian scored 'rabona' wonder goal for Tottenham in Europa League – see it here

News
The cartoon produced by Bruce MacKinnon for the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on Thursday, showing the bronze soldiers of the war memorial in Ottawa welcoming Corporal Cirillo into their midst
news
News
people

Far-right organisation has defended its actions on Facebook

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Voices
Funds raised from the sale of poppies help the members of the armed forces with financial difficulties
voicesLindsey German: The best way of protecting soldiers is to stop sending them into disastrous conflicts
News
The Edge and his wife, Morleigh Steinberg, at the Academy Awards in 2014
peopleGuitarist faces protests over plan to build mansions in Malibu
News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
people

Thought you'd seen it all after the Jeremy Paxman interview?

News
peopleFox presenter gives her less than favourable view of women in politics
Property
One bedroom terraced house for sale, Richmond Avenue, Islington, London N1. On with Winkworths for £275,000.
property
Voices
Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
voicesNigel Farage: Where is the Left’s outrage over the sexual abuse of girls in the North of England?
News
i100
News
Mario Balotelli has been accused of 'threateningly' telling a woman to stop photographing his Ferrari
peoplePolice investigate claim Balotelli acted 'threateningly' towards a woman photographing his Ferrari
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Voices
Don’t try this at home: DIY has now fallen out of favour
voicesNick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of it
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Sport
Phil Jones (left) attempts to stop the progress of West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison on Monday
Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo, writes Paul Scholes
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Junior Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

    £23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker