Britain’s best affineurs and cheesemongers

Britain’s best affineurs and cheesemongers

by Nancy Anne Harbord 04 April 2016

A good cheesemonger takes excellent care of their various cheeses, balancing a huge number of variables to ensure they reach you at their very best. Nancy Anne Harbord talks us through this delicate art and the passionate shopkeepers of Britain who have dedicated their lives to the craft.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Cheese is a living product and must be treated as such, with many factors informing the care of the various varieties made today. An understanding of the seasons, how the animals are fed and cared for and the microbiology of cheeses is essential for consistent success. Each cheese must be checked individually – inspected, touched, squeezed, sniffed – to determine the best treatment. The right materials must be chosen – wood, straw, paper, stone, earth, steel – to keep the delicate balance of friendly bacteria. Humidity is added or removed to improve rinds and control moulds. Temperature is tweaked to encourage or slow development. Cheeses are turned, scrubbed, brushed, wiped, washed or wrapped according to their needs.

Different cheeses demand different conditions and this job means juggling the nuances of artisan production that change, not just from one day to the next, but between each individual cheese. A lifetime of experience is required to truly manage these variables, built on constant dialogue with producers, to determine exactly when each cheese has reached its peak. But the result is well worth the effort – complex, layered flavours, the very best texture from the outside in and wonderful fragrance.

The art of refining cheese does not have the same history in Britain as it does in countries like France, where the profession has a long history. Some will significantly alter and improve the nature of the cheese, while others focus on storing it correctly, gently coaxing it into its best expression. While the number of these dedicated shopkeepers may be small in the UK, their passion is great.

The UK's best cheese shops

Neal's Yard Dairy

Neal's Yard Dairy, London

Headed by one of Britain’s cheese heroes, Randolph Hodgson, Neal’s Yard Dairy was central to the revolution in artisan cheese that pulled British farmhouse cheeses back from the brink. Randolph not only stocked his shop with meticulously chosen cheeses, he was instrumental in the nurturing of countless small producers.

Randolph’s battles with food hygiene regulators not only helped secure a place for unpasteurised cheese in Britain; they were key in resisting the destruction of natural affinage. Neal’s Yard Dairy operates four cavernous maturing rooms in Bermondsey, refining more than sixty artisan cheeses that are tended, nurtured, ripened and tested to perfection. Personal service is central to the offer at Neal’s Yard Dairy no matter how busy the shop gets, and samples of every cheese under consideration are pressed enthusiastically on the buyer. A wonderful shopping experience.

The Courtyard Dairy, North Yorkshire

Andy Swinscoe and his wife Kathy opened their shop in the Yorkshire Dales market town of Settle in 2012. Building on his experience working with some of Britain’s top cheesemongers, he won a Queen Elizabeth Scholarship, which funded eight months of training with Hervé Mons – France’s finest affineur. The whole shop is equipped to mature cheese to its best and the stock includes mostly British, unpasteurised cheeses that reflect their terroir – cheeses that are unique to the farm, the herds that produce them and the season they are made. The Courtyard Dairy’s fantastic website includes an extraordinary amount of information for the true cheese geek; help for other cheesemongers, tips on tweaking and improving cheeses – in fact, anything a real enthusiast could want to know. No doubt his heroes, James Aldridge and Patrick Rance – themselves dedicated to sharing information for the good of the cheese – would be very proud.

La Fromagerie

La Fromagerie, London

A good cheesemonger is first and foremost about the relationship with the cheesemaker – an affineur can only do so much. The quality of the milk and the work of the cheesemaker determine most of the final result, so a good affineur must work with and support small, farmhouse cheesemakers.

Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy

Patricia Michelson opened the first branch of La Fromagerie in Highbury Park in 1992, with the second following in Marylebone ten years later. Attention to detail is key in this gorgeous shop, which stocks up to 200 seasonal varieties from around the world, refined in their dedicated maturing rooms. Michelson’s two engaging books, Cheese and The Cheese Room, are a must for any food library.

'I started La Fromagerie twenty-five years ago and have been learning and absorbing my craft every single day,' says Patricia. 'Affinage is a skill, a science, an art. Above all it is important to see, to listen, to taste and to smell. These skills are acquired over time; by talking to individual cheese makers about their cheeses and visiting dairies and other cheese rooms.'

James's Cheeses, Dorset

James McCall trained under another hero of British cheese, James Aldridge, who he says ‘taught me everything I know’. After making Tornegus with this cheese legend and his partner Patricia Robinson, he worked as head cheesemaker at Daylesford Organic and Cranborne Chase Cheese before focusing on affinage, developing washed-rind cheeses like his mentor James. Now he ages and sells cheeses under the James's name.

'I have been working with Mike Smales and Paul Thomas at Lyburn Cheese and Alison French at Chalke Valley Cheese and together we have developed a new and exciting range of British washed-rind cheeses. These cheeses are made at Lyburn and Chalke Valley dairies and are matured in my specialised washed-rind maturing room in Child Okeford, Dorset.