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Ham’s Tales – Neal’s Yard Dairy comes to Town

Neal's Yard Dairy Training

You can always tell when a person is passionate about their work. It starts with a misty look in the eye whenever someone shows an interest and leads to long, interwoven and tangential answers to what, on the face of it, seem like simple questions. So it is with Andrew of fabled London cheesemonger Neal’s Yard Dairy. His love of all things cheese is evident in his enthusiasm and willingness to talk cheese and I can’t think of a better way to spend a few hours on a Tuesday morning.

We meet Andrew in the blessedly cool surroundings of the atrium bar at Ham & Friends. It’s hot outside, proper hot, so hot that newspaper headlines shout seasonal comparisons with far flung places. It’s so hot, in fact, that Andrew deemed it inappropriate to bring any soft or blue cheeses with him on the train from London, a fact for which his fellow passengers are surely counting their blessings. Not to worry though, for he has brought hard cheeses from around Britain for us to taste while listening to the story of Neal’s Yard’s journey from 70s London hippy cheesemakers to one of the nations most respected maturers, distributors and retailers of cheeses from artisan British producers.

It’s a story that you hear from time to time in the food and drink industry and it never fails to warm the cockles. From humble and innocent beginnings born out of true love for a product to premises in Covent Garden and Borough Market, a multi-chambered, climate controlled maturation facility in Bermondsey, and nationwide recognition. My guess is that we heard a fairly potted and easily recanted version of the legend but still it leaves me daydreaming about buying a flock of goats, burying my mobile phone somewhere in the Dales and living out my days as a cheesemaker in a quiet corner of Yorkshire.

I digress…Andrew begins our lesson by cutting slabs from six tantalising cheeses produced from a wheelie suitcase. On the table today are Appleby’s Cheshire, two examples of Kirkham’s Lancashire, Berkswell, Coolea, and Isle of Mull Cheddar.

Neal's Yard Dairy Training

Now, as much as I enjoy talking about food and learning the legends of the people who fill our lives with flavour, I must confess that my favourite thing about food is eating it. From the first waft under the nose to the tingle on the tongue and the slow bursting of flavour on the taste buds it all serves to make me very happy and today is no exception. Each cheese brings its own unique aroma, texture and flavour to be savoured and, most importantly, enjoyed.

The Applebys Cheshire is a cheese of which anyone would eat a generous wedge with crackers and chutney and a pint of refreshing Kirkstall Pale. Rich mineral flavours balance with an acidity and a crumbly texture that feels great in the mouth and brings to mind picnics and the long hot summers of childhood. Similar can be said of the Isle of Mull Cheddar, although it boasts a fuller flavour, with more sharp acidity and salty notes that mellow on the tongue. Made on the west coast of Scotland by a family of Somerset dairy farmers who upped-sticks and moved their entire operation (another story of foodie adventure, entrepreneurialism and daring do!) you can almost taste the salty mizzle and stubborn sea grass in each mouthful.

Perhaps most surprising is the contrast between the two Kirkham’s Lancashire cheeses in front of us. On our left a young, buttery, creamy and mellow cheese, soft and round on the palate yet with a moreish sharpness that keeps me going back for more. On our right an 18 month matured bruiser. Big, bold and crumbly with funky, damp patches of blue where the rind has been bashed during turning, it couldn’t be more different from its placid younger brother next door. This juxtaposition serves to highlight the importance of the ageing process in cheese making and tells of the time and expertise that goes into every mouthful. As Andrew explains, much of the work of Neal’s Yard these days is in carefully hand selecting and then maturing the best cheeses from each batch to ensure that their customers only receive the finest quality.

Berkswell is the only raw sheep’s milk cheese presented today and it’s a good ‘un. The firm and slightly grainy texture is reminiscent of the Zamarano that we sell so much of at Friends of Ham but without the intense piquant notes that the Spanish cheese brings. The rind is mottled yellowish cream and blue and shows the distinctive marks of careful aging in colanders to manage the levels of moisture in the cheese. The end result is a pale and flavoursome cheese that is enjoyed by everyone around the table.

And now we find that Andrew has saved the best for last.  Compared to the slabs that were carved from the previous five cheeses, the slim slithers carved from the piece of Coolea seem positively miserly but boy do they pack some flavour. Smooth and close yet with a melt in the mouth texture, the flavours are sweet and nutty with hints of caramel and honey and they have us in raptures. As the session draws to an end and Andrew invites us to finish off the cheese that he has cut, all eyes fall upon the Coolea and he generously carves a few more slender slices from the block before studiously wrapping it up and returning it to the wheelie suitcase.

Neal's Yard Dairy Training

And so ends the lesson. As the cheeses are wrapped the chatter is about the funky and powerful 18 month aged Kirkhams Lancashire and the deliciously nutty and sweet Coolea. As we say our goodbyes and make promises to visit the Bermondsey facility I can’t help but drift away to that quiet corner of the Dales and daydream about a flock of cheerful ruminants and a monthly visit from Neal’s Yard to carefully choose my finest cheese for spiriting away to their London lair

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