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Behind the Scenes of Cheese

Wheels of cheese ageing

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Ever since I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a tot, I have been obsessed with visiting the places where food gets made. My family never did make it to Hershey, PA, but as an adult I’ve visited quite a few food factories, including a tea factory, a sake factory, a beer brewery, and yes, a chocolate factory. They were all interesting, but none as exciting as the one I just toured at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London.

Neal’s Yard is a pair of retail shops and a worldwide distributor of small-batch, handmade UK cheeses; they’re also one of the most highly-respected names in the cheese industry. I happened to be in London last week, so I was thrilled to see their facilities firsthand.*

The offices and ageing “caves” are right in the middle of the city, near London Bridge, and are nestled under four large brick archways created by a railway line. Aside from being an interesting use of otherwise dead space, the thick walls help to naturally insulate the cheese storage areas and maintain “cellar temperature.”

Once inside, we donned lab coats, hair nets, and shoe protectors and headed into the caves. Unlike many cheese distributors, Neal’s Yard are also affineurs (ageing experts), and it was interesting to see how different types of cheeses are stored for optimal ageing. Some, like the downy, brie-like Kelsey Lane are kept in walk-in refrigerators with high humidity, while harder cheeses like the stately Stichelton (a raw-milk version of Stilton) are stacked up in a large, warehouse-y room.

The most impressive part of the tour was seeing how much care the staff lavishes on each wheel of cheese – and not just in tracking dates and weights. The staff carefully hand-turns the cheeses so that they age evenly, and taste them at regular intervals to monitor and judge how the flavors are developing. Each wheel ages differently, so the staff rely on their taste buds to determine which ones are ready to go to market. As a result, these guys have incredibly sharp palates, and tasting cheese with them is like tasting wine with a Master Sommelier. And oh, those tastes! These are not inexpensive cheeses, but each taste made me appreciate their efforts more and more.
  
It was a fascinating and delicious tour, and now I’m more hooked on cheese than ever before.

Have you toured any food spots? What are your favorites?

*Full disclosure: my employer sources cheese from them, which is how I got the hookup.

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  • GTO_driver | 11/23/2009

    My experience with a food factory was being raised on a small general farm in Virginia. My parents processed a variety of foods such as butter, cottage cheese, cured pork and freezing and canning a variety of vegetables and meat. All of this was for our consummption. I appreciate seeing those that process food in a caring way.

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    Tyler_M | 11/19/2009

    I toured a turron factory in Spain once. But it was right after Christmas and they'd shut all the machines down for the season. Another time I drove all around Tillamook, Oregon in search of their cheese factory, but never found it...

  • MaryMum | 11/19/2009

    Does a food-related factory tour count? I recently toured a Glad Bag factory and saw the process from the train cars of pellets to the shrink-wrapped boxes on pallets, ready to be shipped.
    *Full disclosure: My student's father is manager of the factory, and he gave my class a special tour. It is not usually open for tours.

  • MaryMum | 11/19/2009

    Does a food-related factory tour count? I recently toured a Glad Bag factory and saw the process from the train cars of pellets to the shrink-wrapped boxes on pallets, ready to be shipped.
    *Full disclosure: My student's father is manager of the factory, and he gave my class a special tour. It is not usually open for tours.

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