Neal’s Yard: Britain’s Green and Pleasant Pastures

18 July 2023

Visitors to Cheese will be familiar with Neal’s Yard Dairy, a stalwart presence in Affineur Alley and a champion of traditional farmhouse cheeses in the UK.

Due to the complexities of the 2021 edition arising from both the pandemic and the new bureaucratic environment imposed by Brexit, Neal’s Yard were sadly unable to participate at Cheese. But we’re delighted to announce their return in 2023, with all the finest farmhouse cheeses that Britain has to offer.

We spoke to the Director of Neal’s Yard Dairy, David Lockwood, about the Taste of the Meadows, the valiant efforts of farmers to keep those tastes alive in their cheeses, and the revival of native breeds.

Slow Food: Welcome back, David! As the theme of Cheese 2023 is the Taste of the Meadows, perhaps we could talk about some of the cheeses you mature and sell that are particularly interesting in this regard. Which cheeses first come to mind?

David Lockwood: Each cheese we sell has its own story, one of fascinating and tenacious farmers and a unique combination of landscapes, animals and techniques. But for the sake of brevity, we could talk about three of the cheeses which I think are among the most special, cheeses whose producers I know well. There’s Westcombe Cheddar, an innovative farmhouse operation from Somerset that combines new technologies with traditional practices; Hafod, a pioneer of sustainable cheddar from West Wales, and Stonebeck Wensleydale, which comes from some of the wildest pastures in the country, up in North Yorkshire.

Let’s start with Westcombe. What’s do we need to know?

Westcombe is an interesting story because it’s not been continuously producing raw milk cheddar over the years: it’s something that they moved away from and then came back to later. As with so many British dairies, they had been running a purely artisanal operation up until the Second World War, when government efforts to secure the domestic food supply led to the introduction of pasteurization. The dairy grew in size in the post-war boom, and by the 1970s they were making non-traditional “block cheddar” on a large scale.

The owners, Richard Calver and Christine Gore, first returned to the idea of traditional farmhouse raw milk cheddar in the 1990s, but it was when Richard’s son Tom got involved in the business that they began approaching the quality they’re known for today. He took over the cheesemaking operation in 2008, after having worked for a time at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

The pastures at the Westcombe farm in Somerset. Photo: Westcombe Dairy

And this is where the innovation came in?

Right. In 2014 they began on building an underground vault for maturing their cheeses in the hillside, a “cathedral” of cheese. There were massive risks in this investment, but they believed that they needed a great maturing facility to go along with their quality terroir, and great cows. They developed a robot to turn their cloth-bound cheeses in the vault automatically, “Tina the Turner”: they were the first in the UK to do this. They built an underground vault maturing area in a hillside. A cathedral of cheese. The first in the uk to have a robot turning the cheese! This is a technology that has since been picked up and implemented by others, including Jasper Hill in Vermont.

As well as these innovations in the cellar, their farming practices have evolved over time too. The animals help build up soil health through their grazing and fertilization. There was one year that many of their Holstein cows were affected by tuberculosis, so they took the opportunity to bring other more rustic breeds, like the Shorthorn. And even their Holsteins are not the typical milk factories you might imagine. They’ve been bred to produce less milk and survive on a hardier diet.

This isn’t easy, because generally the available bulls have been bred for maximum productivity. But that’s what they’re trying to do, consciously. To develop a herd that has a higher percentage of grass in their diets, backed up with plants grown on the farm. I should point out that, unlike the idyllic image we may have of cow herds feeding purely on grass on alpine pastures, that is not a reality anywhere in the UK. We do not know of any cheesemakers whose animals live on pasture alone. The climate and geography doesn’t really allow it.

Making hay to supplement a grass-based diet is more difficult in the UK because of the wetter climate?

Precisely. “Make hay while the sun shines,” as the old proverb says. But that’s not particularly easy in the British Isles. But there are farmers working extremely hard to provide the most natural diets possible for their animals. Take Hafod, in West Wales. I believe it’s the oldest organic farm in Wales, being certified since 1973. While the mixed herd of Ayshire, Welsh Black and Shorthorn cows do spend winters indoors due to the cold, the silage they eat is made from organic oats and peas grown on the farm itself. We can’t ask for much more than that.

This is a very small farm, with less than 100 milking animals, making cheese every other day, and everything is done by hand. The only electricity they use in the cheesemaking is to run the mill. But this is only feasible when you’re running such a small operation. Making wheels of cheese with 2500 liters of milk is a whole lot easier than with 5000 or more.

Fresh forms of Hafod cheese. Photo: Hafod Cheese

Have they made any other changes in order to preserve traditions?

One important factor with Hafod, as opposed to most cheddars, is that at Hafod they don’t bind the rinds in cloth anymore. They were having problems with wet spots on the cheeses, and they found that batches of cheese without a cloth binding allowed the moisture to evaporate more easily. It’s still cheddar; this cheese wasn’t made with a cloth binding. People used to cover it with a layer of lard on the outside. The lard would then be consumed by the bacteria growing on the outside of the cheese.

Being unwrapped is part of what makes Hafod a unique cheese. I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, but simply a symbol of diversity. It’s quick to mature, because of the production process and the smaller forms they make, and they mature quickly because they’re aged at a natural temperature, around 12°C. You sometimes see cheddars that have been aged for a very long time and might automatically assume that makes them somehow a superior product. This isn’t necessarily the case: often these long-aged cheddars have just been kept at a much colder, artificial temperature. Does that make them better? I don’t think so.

Conference to present new Slow Food Presidia

Welcome New Cheese Presidia is scheduled for Saturday, September 16 at 5 p.m., and it’s an opportunity to get up close with the latest arrivals in a prestigious club of dairy products protected by Slow Food: Genazzano cheese and Fodóm cheese.

The former is a pecorino from the Prenestini hills, on the outskirts of Rome, where two agricultural companies keep a centuries-old tradition alive by producing cheese using traditional copper cauldrons. The latter is a cheese from Col di Lana in Veneto, made from the milk of grass-fed cows and cut hay on the steepest slopes of the Dolomites. Both of these Presidia were born from a collaboration with FedEx, part of a commitment to supporting small-scale businesses and the development of local networks together with Slow Food Italy.

At the conference there are also two French-speaking protagonists: the Bleu de Queyras, a blue-veined cheese made from raw cow’s milk from the pastures of the Hautes Alpes region, and the Brigue Toma, made from the milk of the brigasca sheep, a sheep breed raised in the Roja Valley. We’ll also present the Plezzana sheep, which owes its name to the Slovenian town of Plezzo but is also found in the mountainous areas of the province of Udine and the Austrian region of Carinthia. Slow Food is currently initiating the protection process for this sheep breed as part of the Presidia project.

Let’s move up to North Yorkshire. What do we need to know about Stonebeck Wensleydale?

This is quite a different scenario, but it’s one that’s particularly relevant to the theme of Cheese 2023: The Taste of the Meadows. That’s because of the wonderfully biodiverse pastures the animals graze on. Andrew and Sally Hatton are first-generation farmers with a scientific background. Andrew has a PhD in cow nutrition, and had worked on larger farmers, before he and his wife rented this land on the Middlesmoor Estate and set to work restoring this old hill farm. They spent years working on increasing the fertility of the fields here, to make it as suitable possible for their animals. And they really care about their animals as individuals: Andrew doesn’t even like to call them a “herd”!

Northern Shorthorn cows at Stonebeck. Photo: Stonebeck

The numbers we’re working with here are really tiny: just 25 milking cows of the Northern Shorthorn breed, milked every other day, producing around 600 liters of milk. But you can taste the quality in the milk, and the cheese: amazing flavors that really reflect this rustic setting. There’s some fencing on the moors to maintain balance, making sure no part of the pasture is over- or undergrazed. It’s all about balance, and I think the results speak for themselves. Being a natural cheese in every sense, made from raw milk and natural starter cultures, it’s also a seasonal cheese, not available all year round. To further increase their sustainability, they’re working on installing solar panels and using their own spring water to supply to control the temperature of their cheese store.

by Jack Coulton, [email protected]

Cheese 2023 is organized by Slow Food and the City of Bra from September 15-18. See you there! #Cheese2023

Skip to content