I turned to Pam. ‘We have to have one!’
‘No, we’re having lunch in less than an hour.’
‘I mean one between us, not each, obviously.’
‘Even between us, that’s more calories than Ranulph Fiennes burns to get to the North Pole.’
I looked to the precarious wall of pre-toasted cheese sandwiches on the stall in front of us; the slices of sourdough bread looking like pale lines of mortar to the brick-thick grated filling. A chalkboard advertised five types of speciality onion as well as organic leek and garlic used in the dressing. The assistant took an order from a business woman in front of me, lifted a sandwich from the stack and pressed it between the griddle plates. The bread sizzled and cheese oozed out of the sides. The smell of hot cheddar and gruyere filled the air.
I joined the queue. 'I'll still eat lunch, promise.'
We were in Borough Market, a cosmopolitan source of nourishment for The City’s office workers and knowing tourists at lunchtimes. I had worked for a wine merchant beneath the arches of a viaduct adjoining the market in the early nineties, when it was home to London’s fruit and vegetable wholesalers. As a night market it would be closing by the time I made my way in, and The Globe and Market Porter, inns with a licence to serve alcohol from six in the morning, would ring with talk of that day’s trading; the green-stained aprons occasionally joined by the polyester suit of a young wine salesman downing a breakfast half pint. The demise of the greengrocer trade by the end of the decade had left the market facing closure after nearly a thousand years’ activity as a trading point, but a food fair staged in 1998 exposed a hunger for artisan produce and the occasion became a monthly, then weekly, and finally a daily event. We were here because we had arranged a meeting with a cheese expert from nearby Neal’s Yard Dairy, one of the country’s leading wholesalers. Our findings in Haslemere had dampened our resolve, but I hoped the expert might stoke a little heat into our quest with a country-wide perspective. Was there a broader market for washed-rind cheese, or would we limit our options by placing our faith in the smelly stuff?
Clouds of breath rose from customers as they bumped shoulders in the pre-Christmas bustle. I bit into the sandwich and we walked on, past a dish large enough to pick up news from another galaxy, bubbling with Thai curry: a thermal pool of ginger, lemongrass and coriander. Then came the smells of grilled lamb and fragrant parsley of a Lebanese mezze, Highland venison burgers, and an enormous paella splashed with prawns, octopus rings and bacon cubes the size of dice. Beyond, the scent of hot chestnut billowed from a brazier outside The Globe, retaining its Dickensian air despite the much changed clientele. I closed my eyes and for a moment imagined walking through the market using the sense of smell alone; the changing olfactory scene a world tour without leaving the acre of land beneath Borough's clattering trains.
I scrunched my napkin, dropped it into a bin and we made our way across the road to the rippling awning of Neal's Yard Dairy. Beneath it stood a man in white Wellingtons and blue cap and apron; on his trestle were what looked like a stack of foot-wide hockey pucks. The man handed us a curl of rich yellow cheese, explaining it was Coolea, a Gouda style from County Cork. I smiled as he described it as having hints of hazelnuts, butter and honey, realising that the cheese world had the same propensity for floral language as does the wine business. Inside the dairy, cheesemongers jostled behind a counter proffering samples and advice in equal proportion; behind them, pillars of wax-coated Lincolnshire Poacher, cloth-bound Keen’s Cheddar and russet tinged Colston Bassett Stilton; in front of them the wedges, disks and triangles of individual cheeses destined to leave the slate-top that day. We were standing before what many would consider the high-altar of British cheese, the meeting point of the country’s finest fermented curd. Started by Nick Saunders and Randolph Hodgson in the 1980s, the company was as much a cheese shop as the hub of a campaign to help save the last of the country’s artisan cheese producers, who were then facing pressure to commercialise by the supermarkets. If our answer couldn’t be found here, then our question didn’t have one.
‘May I speak to your manager,’ I said to an assistant. She left and returned with a lean man with slick black hair and matching leather jacket; not a caricature cheese expert, I thought. Could we trust the advice of someone who didn’t exhibit the results of indulgence in his passion? I supposed I didn’t have to have sclerosis to host wine tastings.
I asked him to tell me about how Neal's Yard became so popular. He explained that at the outset of the Second World War the Ministry of Food was compelled to centralise cheese production, regulating styles to a few processed hard cheeses, such as Cheddar, Wensleydale, Cheshire and Leicester. Artisan cheesemaking was wiped out overnight and even production of traditional cheeses like Stilton and Caerphilly was banned. The number of cheesemakers dropped from 1600 before the war to fewer than 200 afterwards. Understandably, price, standardisation and ease of supply were the principal objectives and with no PDO (Protected Designation of Origin, a geographical indication controlling aspects of production to protect the integrity of quality foods) or similar regulation enshrining quality, the names became debased. The situation didn’t improve with the end of rationing in 1954. A generation of cheese makers had been lost, and the sixties, the age of Spam and Smash, saw the further rise of convenience over quality. ‘Basically, if it was cheap and it stored well, it sold.’ He went on to recount how specialist cheese sellers such as Patrick Rance and James Aldridge in the 70’s and then Randolph Hodgson at Neal’s Yard in the 80’s, had triggered the revival by working with producers to drive up quality. His eyes shone as he spoke and listening to him was exciting. This was the fillip we needed.
‘I’ve read we now make more types of cheese than France,’ I said, ‘over 700?’
‘It’s a figure I’ve heard used,’ he said, ‘but “type” probably refers to individual cheeses, rather than styles, as French cheesemaking has developed within the boundaries of the PDO system, with many producers choosing to make their cheese to a PDO style, rather than doing their own thing, as we do here.’
‘So do we have a more diverse selection in this country?’ said Pam.
‘Probably not, as there are still many French producers outside of the PDO system creating individual cheeses that could be classified as a style in the same way.’
I felt a little cheated, as I had read the comparison with French cheese stated in a number of recent articles.
‘So, what type of cheese are you planning to make?’ he asked.
‘Well, we’ve ruled out Cheddar and Stilton,’ Pam said.
‘And Camembert and Brie too.’
‘We’re thinking of making a washed-rind.’
A smile formed at the corner of his mouth. ‘So, what type of washed rind?’
‘Smelly!’ Pam said.
‘Well, fairly smelly,’ I added.
‘We’re hoping that with the renewed interest in cheese, people will want something more challenging.’
He studied both of us. ‘I think people are ready, and I think you’ve hit on the style with the potential to work.’
This was fabulous! We were on the right track.
‘Washed rinds are my favourite,’ he continued, ‘and although they sell less than the other styles, there’s a market out there.’
‘Have you made cheese before?’ he asked.
We told him about the day course.
He looked at us both for a moment. ‘You might want to start with a simpler cheese.’