Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Hello, Cheddar!

Montgomery is back in my life. Montgomery's Cheddar, that is.

What a delicious comfort it is to have a wedge of the world's best Cheddar in my fridge. Working at Neal's Yard Dairy in London for a second Christmas season means that my fridge never has to go without.

I was looking forward to this moment of returning to the cheese shop and regaining easy access (perhaps too easy!) to exceptional artisanal cheeses from the British Isles. It's the reason I'm back here in London, earning less than 8 pounds sterling an hour, and no longer sitting in comfort behind a desk at New York University. My first day of work at the cheese shop on Monday officially launched my great, 10-month Cheddar adventure. There was no Champagne at the launch, just nibbles of cheese from the moment I arrived at 11:30 a.m. until the time we closed the shop around 8 p.m. I did have a couple of bottles of "real" cider with Stony later to unwind after a long day on my feet, in white Wellington boots. Stony also heated up some leftover dal & basmati rice for me to counteract all those dairy products in my stomach.

It's comforting, too, how familiar work at the dairy is. Eight years is a long time to be away from a job, but so much about working behind the slate counter, encouraging customers in my unexpected American accent to sample and buy cheese, came back to me immediately. This familiarity made me realize how much I had learned in my four months at Neal's Yard back in fall 2000. Put a blue apron and cap and those white Wellies on me and I become a mean, but not lean, cheese-selling machine.

The smells are familiar, too. Usually the pungent aroma of aging cheeses assaults your senses right away and it can be overwhelming. People passing by the shop in Convent Garden can be heard yelling out to their mates, "God, would you smell that!" They are surprised and a bit disgusted. In this age of industralized food, when dinner usually comes wrapped in plastic, people no longer know what food really smells like. Customers who get turned around trying to find us will say that they ultimately located the shop by following its distinctive smell. It's that strong. Working at the dairy, however, you get used to the smell and don't even notice it after a while. I acclimated right away.

A lovely smell came from the cold room that I had forgotten. Whenever the stainless steel doors open for someone to pull butter, yogurt, or heavy creams for the shop, I enjoy the sour, milky scent. It smells like the essence of dairy, the aroma of northern Europe. Or as if you had taken a decadent bath in fresh, heavy cream at bedtime and then awoke to its lingering smell. Martin, one of the good-humored shop mangers, says it's actually coming from the industrial fan in the fridge. I would be really wrong, wouldn't I, if I were confusing fermenting milk with motor grease! But maybe that is the smell of northern Europe, agricultural products mixing with industry.

There was a moment on Monday that wasn't so positive. My doubts about Cheddar that have been growing for the past month returned. I didn't expect that at Neal's Yard Dairy, of all places. This was to be my reassuring return to real Cheddar. My first sample of Monty's was off-putting. I didn't taste its sweet and nutty complexity; all I got was mustiness. For sure, farmhouse Cheddars that have been aged in cloth will have a earthy quality close to the rind, kind of like wet potato skins, but it's all I tasted and I didn't like it. This is not what makes a world-class Cheddar. To my relief, my next sample of this naturally pale yellow cheese yielded that flavors I was after. Phew. This is the Cheddar that made me quit my job at NYU and sent me traveling the Anglophone world. It's that good.

1 comment:

msdeemc said...

Hi Diana,
What a relief to be where the cheese is! This blog entry made me go out and buy myself a hunk of good cheddah at Formaggio. So, keep spreading the love.