Surviving An English Cheese Crawl: Eight Great Places for Turophiles to gather while in London
“Mummy, there is NO cheese from Norfolk!” charged my then seven-year-old, indignant in her posh English accent. She was examining a map of England hanging on the wall, its overlay outlining the origin of most of what Neal’s Yard had on offer. She was right. No cheese had been sourced from the bump of Britain that sits northeast of London and is surrounded by the North Sea.
Heads turned in her direction. An American woman commented on both the little English girl’s enunciation and her interest in her country’s cheese landscape. Little did she know that Eliza was born in central Pennsylvania. The accent was a recent acquisition to help her blend in at her new school in Norwich (the county seat of Norfolk).
But she does know a bit about British cheeses, she’d already been to the national cheese festival twice and was no stranger to Cheddar and Cheshire or Stilton and Shropshire Blue, all of which frequented our family’s cheese board.
The British have at their disposal more than 700 uniquely-named cheeses produced within England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That tally doesn’t include the French varieties so readily available from the other side of the Channel Tunnel. A few of those — like Mrs. Temple’s Norfolk Dapple and Binham Blue — do indeed come from Norfolk, they just didn’t make the Neal’s Yard map. Norfolk’s flat farmland and rocky coastline are better known by its compatriots for strawberries, potatoes and Cromer crab.
Last summer when I embarked on a London Cheese Shop crawl –the goal was to visit eight venues in two days to locate the best and the brightest cheeses in the city – Eliza tagged along.
Each of the London cheese shop we called upon clearly has its own persona.
A younger upstart called La Fromagerie in Marylebone displays its product in a pristine glass-enclosed room at exactly 14.7 degrees Celsius and 69 percent humidity and holds itself in very high regard as the perfect setting to buy cheese. Jeroboams, a friendly neighborhood place near Holland Park offers up its cheese with all complementary picnic fare necessary for an outing in the park should the weather permit. And La Cave a Fromage, a French-inspired establishment near the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington serves a French red calibrated to match the six cheese samples laid out on a piece of a slate for your pleasure.
All of the cheese mongers interviewed for this post tell me that they stock the most variety of cheese during the holidays, some even admitting to a 25 percent increase in inventory. So if you are lucky enough to be a cheese lover in London this holiday season, I’ve pulled together this list of eight cheese shops you should not miss! But if you happen to be there at other points in the year, no worries, there is still plenty of cheese to choose from.
These shops are listed in the order we visited them. They are loosely grouped geographically as we traveled between the shops on foot, using the London Underground system wherever possible.
Paxton and Whitfield
93 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6JE
Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9.30am – 6.00pm. (Longer hours during the holidays)
Atmosphere: Tightly packed shop with the cheese counter running the length of one side and an assortment of posh cheese board additions – like sweet and sour chutneys, fig jams and water crackers — in floor to ceiling shelves on the other. Knowledgeable staff members in white coats and grey aprons are readily available to assist.
Cheese sources: 100-125 cheeses from Britain and Europe
Top sellers: Montgomery Cheddar, Stilton (especially at Christmas), Brie and Gorgonzola Dolce
Unique cheeses on offer: Sussex Blue (a creamy British Blue with a hard rind) and Mahon (a tangy Spanish cow’s milk cheese washed in pimento and olive oil)
Nearest Tube stop: Green Park
2-6 Moxon Street, London W1U 4EW*
Hours: Monday – Friday 8.00am-7.30pm; Saturday 9.00am-7.00pm; Sunday 10.00am-6.00pm.
Atmosphere: You are led into this cheese shop through a corridor lined with wooden crates of organic veggies, mesh carrier bag displays, freshly baked goods, cartons of happy chicken and quail eggs and bags of colored pasta and legumes of all shapes and sizes. The obvious question is: Where’s the cheese?
It’s in the cheese room, silly. Everything from giant wheels of Montgomery Cheddar and Holland’s best Gouda to delicate French goat cheeses in logs, crottins and herbed domes, sit in this pristine glass cage, pressurized for humidity and controlled for temperature to owner Patricia Michelson’s exact specifications. The cheese is well presented on thigh-high wooden tables and shelves that climb the wall to a height that puts a crook in your neck if you follow the view too closely. It’s beautiful, a canvas of cheese.
Cheese sources: Soft, semi-soft, semi-hard, hard and blue cheese made from buffalo’s, cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s milk in Austria, England, France, Germany, Holland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland or Wales.
Top sellers: Cheddars and French goat cheeses
Nearest Tube stop: Baker Street, Bond Street or Regent’s Park
*La Fromagerie still operates a shop at its original location at 30 Highbury Park, London N5 2AA.
96 Holland Park Avenue, London W11 3RB*
Hours: Monday-Friday, 8.00am-8.00pm; Saturday, 8.30am-7.00pm; Sunday, 10.00am-6.00pm.
Atmosphere: There is no pretense in the presentation of this corner grocery styled shop. Well, there may be a little bit of pretense in thinking that home-sick Americans might be willing to pay outrageous sums for the comforts of home, take the box of Lucky Charms that carried a sticker price of almost 10 pounds! But the cheese was laid out methodically in a single grocery case as you walk in the door. There was not a large quantity of each variety, but there was a large variety of cheese from which to choose. But you would likely only need a little bit of cheese to go with all the other great things – like olives, cornichons and a selection of interesting sliced to order cured meats — to accompany it.
Cheese sources: A very respectable selection of about 100 cheeses from all over the UK and Europe.
Top sellers: Hard blue cheeses and soft, fresh ones.
Nearest Tube stop: Holland Park
*While there are a total of 10 Jeroboams outlets around the city, this is the flagship shop.
La Cave a Fromage
24-25 Cromwell Place, London SW7 2LD
Hours: Monday-Wednesday, 10.00am-7.00pm; Thursday-Saturday, 10.00am-9.00pm; Sunday 11.00am-5.00pm
Atmosphere: The retail business carried out in this glass fronted shop is swift and steady. Owners Eric Charriaux and Amnon Paldi have finely tuned their stock through years of experience with both French suppliers and the London high-end restaurants they’ve serviced since 1999 from their Premier Cheese depots. They know what their customers want for their own cheese boards. But it’s when you sit down on a dark wooden stool at one of the high butcher-block tables and are presented with a slate of cheese (picked because they are at their peak when you are there) and a glass of red wine to match, that you realize the true genius of the place.
Cheese sources: Stock ranges from 150 to 200 cheeses, mainly France and England
Top sellers: French goat cheeses in the spring and hearty, hard cheeses in winter.
Nearest Tube stop: South Kensington
Rippon Cheese Store
26 Upper Tachbrook Street, London SW1V 1SW
Hours: Closed until December 31st. Open for normal trading on January 4, 2010.
Atmosphere: When I visited this shop its owners were doing business a few doors down from its usual address as the permanent store was being renovated. The point of the renovation was to make the shop as conducive to maturing and cutting cheese as any cheese monger in the city. The new old location is now open for a mixed commercial and retail business that offers over 450 cheeses from all over Europe.
Top sellers: Customers are “absolutely mad” for cheddar, Stilton and brie from September to March says owner Karen Rippon.
Unique cheeses on offer: Barkham Blue from Two Hoots Creamery– voted Britain’s top cheese in 2008; and, Marcaire, an alternative to brie that comes from Alsace.
Nearest Tube stop: Victoria
45 Tachbrook St, London SW1V 2LZ
Hours: Monday-Saturday 8:00am to 11:00pm; Sunday 9:00am to 10:00pm
Atmosphere: Gatronomica, the company, is a well-known Italian food importer. In addition to its original wholesale business, Gastronomica readily avails its wonderful supply of Italian wines, cheeses, cured meats, pastas, grissinis, olives and olive oils to the masses at stalls located in London’s Borough, Broadway and Whitecross Street Markets and in café settings in the Pimlico and Wapping neighborhoods and in the city of Manchester.
Under its inviting tomato red awning, Gatronomica Pimlico stands as an Italian deli, dripping with subdued class and relaxed style. Its open floor plan is chock full of thick, dark wooden tables to the left side and cases of its raw goods on offer to the right. Old wine racks line the walls above the tables and chalkboards listing fully of assembled and cooked combinations adorn the wall over the cheese cases. You can pop in here for a half dozen slices of tuna carpaccio to serve at your dinner party, or assemble a personal cheese plate to eat while you sip a glass of Borolo on site.
Cheese sources: Italian, of course. More than two dozen at a time are on offer, everything from Paglierina (a semi-soft, mild ewe’s milk cheese from Piedmont) to Raschera (a cow’s milk cheese from the Alpine area of Cuneo) to Caprino Fresco Alta Longa (a soft goat, also from Cuneo).
Unique cheeses on offer: Pecorina di Fossa – which is buried for 3 months in Umbrian soil to mature.
Nearest Tube stop: Victoria
Cheese at Leadenhall Market
4-5 Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LR
Hours: Monday-Tuesday: 9.00am – 5.00pm; Wednesday: 9.00am – 6.00pm; Thursday-Friday: 9.00am – 8.00pm
Atmosphere: Brimming, well-labeled cheese cases on the inside with café tables on the outside in the Victorian covered market where you can sit and sip something with your cheese and charcuterie, served by staff who can all talk very sensibly about cheese.
Cheese sources: 100-150 international, unpasteurized cheeses
Top sellers: Stilton, cheddar and Golden Cross goat cheese
Unique cheeses on offer: A brie with truffles from Normandy and a 22-month old Comte reserve.
Nearest Tube stop: Monument Station
Neal’s Yard Dairy
17 Shorts Gardens London WC2H 9AT (Covent Garden)
Hours: Monday – Thursday, 11.00am to 7.00pm; Friday – Saturday, 10.00am to 7.00pm
6 Park Street London SE1 9AB (Borough Market)
Hours: Monday – Friday, 9.00am to 6.00pm; Saturday, 8.00am to 5.00pm.
Atmosphere: OK, I have to admit that I’ve cheated. But I had to list both Neal’s Yard venues because you really should absolutely go to both. The original (the one in Covent Garden) is in cramped hallway of a space with cheese housed on every available (sanitary suitable, of course) surface, staff skillfully maneuvering behind the counter to get to the customers and the cheese in equal measure. You can taste anything as long as the folks in the line streaming out the door behind you don’t get too agitated.
The Borough Market site has wide open spaces in comparison, with plenty of room for customers to browse for both cheese (which is kept appropriately humidified by a serious of exposed pipes that carry water to a trickling shower-like spigots that drip into whiskey barrels in the corners of the shops) and various other dairy sundries like full fat cream and farmhouse butter.
Cheese sources: There are 76-80 cheeses, mostly from the British Isles, with an occasional visitor from France, Italy or Greece and one lone American, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw milk artisanal cheese from Wisconsin.
Top sellers: The Montgomery Cheddar, the Somerset raw milk cheese which Neal’s Yard has certainly help put on the international cheese map.
Nearest Tube stop: Covent Garden (for original site); London Bridge (for Borough Market site).