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.
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).
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