Bermondsey: A Fermenting London Neighborhood

We’re used to the idea of pairing cheeses with wines, but what about beers? This was the proposal at one of our Taste Workshops, dedicated to a London neighborhood where both industries are well-represented: Bermondsey, home to the aging rooms of Neal’s Yard Dairy and numerous brewers.

Bermondsey railway arches

Bermondsey has a long history, appearing as far back as the Domesday Book written in 1086. It was here, Francis Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy tells us, that Chaucer’s pilgrims drank before setting off for Canterbury, in a tavern that now hosts their print shop in the very same building. It lies directly south of the River Thames, which has, for most of London’s history, been associated with “disreputable” pastimes. Shakespeare’s theater was not far away, and in that day and age, the area was also well known for bear-baiting and prostitution. To this day, it remains one of the cheapest areas in the city, and as Percival puts its, “it’s the best value real estate in London.” And that’s why it’s now home to the aging rooms of Neal’s Yard Dairy, underneath the railway arches of Spa Terminus.

The cheeses aged there are produced all over the UK, but spend the majority of their lives before going to market in Bermondsey, where the affineurs age them in optimum conditions. The same area is home to the breweries whose beers we are tasting in combination with the cheeses: Brew By Numbers, Partizan, FourPure and the Kernel, the latter produced underneath the same railway arches as Neal’s Yard.

We start with Innes Log, a goat’s milk cheese from Staffordshire with a mellow, savory flavor and a gray rind peppered with mold and coated in salted ash. It’s a palatable start to proceedings, and has a pleasant, spicy organoleptic profile when the smell of Brew By Numbers Saison Hallertau Blanc is smelled with the cheese still in the mouth.

Innes Log

We continue with Appleby’s Cheshire, and we’re joined by none other than the producer herself, Sarah Appleby. The family have been making cheese since 1942, when there were over 400 producers of raw milk Cheshire cheese in the UK. Today, the Appleby family are the last one’s standing. We nibble at this delicious cow’s milk classic with Partizan brewery’s Lemon & Thyme Saison, which lends stronger citrus notes to the mineral flavors present in the cheese.

Appleby’s Cheshire

Next up is Kirkham’s Lancashire, again the last of its kind, insofar as it is made, like all the cheeses at Cheese 2017, with raw milk. More so than the other cheeses in the tasting, it’s fair to say that the Lancashire tastes more expressly of milk than any other, which is surprising given how hard it is. It’s the product of a long, careful production process that has been continuously reworked and improved over three generations. With it, we taste Brew By Numbers Belgian Pale Hallertau Blanc, a Bermondsey-made version of a classic Belgian style beer, which again, intensifies and enhances the sensory profile of the cheese.

The penultimate cheese is very special indeed, and perhaps the author’s favorite of the bunch: this is Isle of Mull cheddar, and we’re lucky again to have the producer, Brendan Reade, present at the tasting. It’s a very strong, mature cheddar, dry to the bite but with an almost boozy note in the aftertaste without sipping any beer whatsoever: this is due to the fermentation of barley in the cow’s stomachs making the milk slightly alcoholic!

We pair it with an equally strong beer, the 8.3% Double IPA by FourPure, Deucebox Citrus. It’s an almost overpowering combination, but as Francis tells us, cheddar-lovers are looking for exactly this kind of experience: “something that will smack you in the face.”

Stichelton

Last of all, we taste a cheese that is very dear to Slow Food, and which became a Presidium last year. This is Stichelton (or, as it should really be called, Stilton), again the last of its kind. The European PDO specifies that Stilton must be made with pasteurized milk, and thus, Joe Schneider, the only producer still making the cheese with raw milk, is forced to call it Stichelton (the ancient name of the village). It terms of its sensory profile, it’s one of the most extraordinary cheeses in the world. There are multiple flavors all at work simultaneously, an unctuous, creamy texture, and a beefy quality that reminds us of the animal’s meat almost as much as its milk. We pair it with the only “traditional” English-style beer present among the all-Bermondsey cast, the Kernel’s Imperial Brown Stout, which packs a whopping 10%. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but for lovers of London-style porter, it’s a wonder to taste, with a strong hint of chocolate that delights the taste buds.

As Francis Percival summarizes, these cheeses were all made historically, they’re nothing new, but the last of a dying breed representing the very best in English cheesemaking. “Innovation is the rediscovery of historical techniques,” he points out. And we pray that a new generation of English cheesemakers will take up the baton and carry on these fine traditions.

Product photos and Bermondsey photo from Neal’s Yard Dairy website.

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