Joe Schneider of Stichelton Dairy proffers samples of his cheese at Neal’s Yard in Borough Market © Charlie Bibby

On a chilly winter morning down a side street by London’s Borough Market, Neal’s Yard Dairy store manager Martin Tkalez stands dwarfed by a wall of cheese. There are more than 350 in total, varying in size and shape, from the foot-high wheels of Lancashire that fill the shelves to the rectangles, rounds and wedges that cover the 30ft counter. Christmas is crunch time for Neal’s Yard Dairy and Tkalez is a veteran of 14 of them. “We do a fifth of all our yearly sales in 24 days over December,” he says, raising his eyebrows for emphasis. “We treat Christmas like a campaign and I love it. The queue goes right down to the corner of the street.”

As we stand behind the counter chatting, a suave-looking middle-aged Frenchman enters the shop with his young son. “C’est le coeur du fromage anglais,” he explains to his son as they look about in awe. Neal’s Yard Dairy is indeed a mecca for British cheese aficionados but it is not only specialist retailers who experience a seasonal spike. In most homes across the country, the cheeseboard is an irresistible temptation at Christmas. Over the festive period, total UK cheese sales grow by 11 per cent but for those cheeses associated with Christmas the figures are even higher. Blue cheese sales, for instance, more than double from an average of 800 tonnes to a whopping 2,000 tonnes. This time of year puts makers and mongers under intense pressure. For them, Christmas is a blessing and a curse.

“At Christmas our sales of everything explode and things go crazy,” explains Bronwen Percival, Neal’s Yard Dairy technical manager, a native of San Diego County who has lived in the UK since 2004. According to Percival, up to 40 per cent of a cheesemaker’s production is sold in the last three weeks of December. A fresh-faced thirtysomething and a leading light in the world of farmhouse cheese, Percival reflects on the challenge of the season: “I get really frustrated because we go from this situation where we are struggling to sell enough over the year to where we struggle to make enough for Christmas.”

While industrial cheese producers are able to buy variable amounts of milk at market price, increase mechanical production at the push of a button and freeze cheese to build up stocks, it is a different picture for small-volume producers making farmhouse cheese. These defenders of craft and tradition have to contend with finite milk supplies, small production units, limited storage and an end product that is complex, temperamental and sensitive.

Christmas is the ultimate test of the business model initiated by Randolph Hodgson, the originator of Neal’s Yard Dairy, in 1979. He was determined to champion traditional British farmhouse cheese at a time when industrial production threatened to wipe it out. He worked closely with makers to develop their cheese and to guarantee sales, often helping out in their dairies and even with school runs. In the world of British cheese, Hodgson is seen as a visionary and hero: he believed in artisan cheese when no one else was interested.

The blue cheese counter at Neal’s Yard © Charlie Bibby

Hodgson, now in his sixties, is less hands-on today but his influence remains. “Back in 1991, my first Christmas, we got an order of 90 mini Stilton cheeses,” remembers managing director David Lockwood, who has worked with cheese his entire life except for a brief and unfulfilling stint in banking one summer. “Randolph wasn’t happy with [the quality]. We were a tiny business but he refused to sell them. He just said, ‘I can’t do this. It’s against everything we do.’ That was a powerful statement about the intent of Neal’s Yard Dairy.” What started out as a single small outlet in Covent Garden has grown into a business that includes three shops and a wholesale and export business with sales of more than £11m a year.

Despite these victories, however, the future of artisan cheese remains precarious. “Within the cheese industry there’s too little discussion about quality,” laments Percival, who recently co-authored a groundbreaking book-cum-manifesto, Reinventing the Wheel. “We need to take back that conversation or all the smallest and most laudable cheesemakers are going to be history.”

Joe Schneider at the Stichelton Dairy in Nottinghamshire with Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy © David Severn

Christmas sales help ensure the viability of small cheese producers and, in late autumn, a crucial selection process takes place. Members of the Neal’s Yard buying team undertake a monthly tour of northern England. This year Percival and Lockwood went on the road and I joined them. Over the course of three days, talking non-stop about cheese, we drove from the gently undulating vales of Leicestershire to the steep hills of Cumbria. “Bring something to snack on,” advised Percival ahead of the trip. “We eat a lot of cheese and there isn’t often time to stop for anything else.” She was not joking. With seven suppliers to see and more than 700 miles to cover, the clock was ticking.

Of all the planned visits, the most pressing takes place in the East Midlands, home to Stilton and other British blue territorial varieties. Stilton and its like are the kings of Christmas. In November and December 2016, Neal’s Yard sold over 50 tonnes of blue cheese.

Why Christmas is so closely associated with Stilton is contested. Some believe it coincided with the optimum maturing time for blue cheese made with the best milk of the summer. Historical sources suggest otherwise.

“Isabella Beeton [Victorian author of the famed Book of Household Management] says to store Stilton for up to 18 months. If that’s the case then Christmas is irrelevant,” Percival points out.

Workers hand-ladle curds at Colston Bassett Dairy, Nottinghamshire © David Severn

Percival suspects that the association between blue cheese and Christmas is a relatively recent one but, either way, it is now a tradition she and her colleagues must reckon with. Neal’s Yard currently sells two English blue cheeses — Colston Bassett Stilton and Stichelton. Ensuring sufficient supply for Christmas is a technical and logistical headache. “Over the next two months, we’ll sell almost 5,000 Colston Bassett Stiltons,” says Percival, as we arrive at our first stop, Colston Bassett Dairy. “With margins low and stocks liable to either run out or leftover stocks to ruin, the stakes are high when it comes to blue cheese at Christmas.”

Located in the Vale of Belvoir in Nottinghamshire in a single-story red-brick building, Colston Bassett has been supplying Neal’s Yard Dairy with Stilton since 1979. Manager Billy Kevan, a wiry man with a no-nonsense, wry manner, greets us in his office, hands out white coats and hairnets and leads us through to the make room. Inside are four rectangular stainless-steel open vats, each about 3ft x 20ft. Over the course of a year, these tanks transform four million litres of milk sourced from local farms into some of the best Stilton in the country. Percival, not given to gushing, is fulsome in her praise: “Billy is the most technically brilliant cheesemaker. One of the best we work with. Nothing gets between him and his work.”

Colston Bassett manager Billy Kevan offers samples of Stilton to the FT’s Polly Russell and David Lockwood of Neal’s Yard Dairy © David Severn

To qualify for official Stilton status, cheese has to conform to a number of criteria, including being produced in the counties of Leicestershire, Derbyshire or Nottinghamshire and being made with pasteurised milk. Aside from these shared characteristics, each Stilton producer has his or her own recipe. As Kevan is quick to point out, cheesemaking is as much an art as a science: “You could take 10 cheesemakers, give them all the same ingredients, the same recipes, and you’d end up with 10 different cheeses.”

Kevan whisks us from the make room into one of four recently renovated maturing rooms. Each 40ft room consists of a central aisle flanked on either side by wooden shelves holding 8kg Stilton wheels at different stages of maturation. As they age, the wheels turn from a pale cream to a mottled yellowy-ochre. To encourage Stilton’s characteristic blue mould to develop, cheeses are pierced with metal spikes. I ask Kevan when this takes place and he fixes me with a steely look. “They call me Billy the Riddle,” he says with a smile. “I’ll tell you the basics, no problem, but you’ll not get anything technical from me.”

Kevan gets out his cheese iron, a tool used to sample maturing cheese, and systematically works it into the wheels he has made for Neal’s Yard. Notebooks and pencils in hand, everyone begins tasting and writing notes. The cheese we taste was made throughout August and September and will take 12 weeks to ripen for sale. “All Stiltons go through this bitter youth and then mellow,” Percival explains as we taste. The cheeses are complex, rich and rewarding. Batches are compared, graded and assigned for the retail, wholesale or export trade.

Stichelton Dairy © David Severn

Given his demeanour, it comes as no surprise to hear that Kevan has managed to crush the chaos of Christmas into a well-ordered cheese-producing regime. “Things aren’t as hectic at Christmas as they used to be,” he reflects matter-of-factly when we are back in his office. “At one time it was 70 per cent of the business but we spread it out now so it’s manageable.”

The festive season may no longer pose a problem for Kevan but Neal’s Yard struggles to fulfil demand. “We’re buying everything that’s made for us by Billy,” sighs Lockwood as we drive away from Colston Bassett. “But it’s not enough.”

Next stop on the hunt for Christmas cheese is Stichelton Dairy, 30 miles down the road. Although housed on the 18th-century Welbeck Estate near Worksop, Nottinghamshire, Stichelton is a relatively new venture. It was started in 2006 as a partnership between American cheesemaker Joe Schneider, Hodgson and the Welbeck Estate, with the express aim of increasing blue cheese supply. Made with raw rather than pasteurised milk, Stichelton cannot legally be called Stilton, though from a layperson’s perspective there is little difference between them.

Aiming to create a new blue cheese is not a simple undertaking. Blue cheeses are demanding and volatile. The slightest change in milk, environment or process can risk altering the cheese from day to day. Throughout 2017, Stichelton struggled with issues of consistency. “Joe’s really taken this rough patch to learn more about the cheese and we believe he’s turned it around in time for Christmas,” explains Percival as we drive into the dairy’s forecourt. “This visit is critical.”

A sample of Stichelton being extracted with a cheese iron © David Severn

Percival and Lockwood, regular visitors here, lead the way up narrow wooden stairs to the dairy’s spacious, pine-floored office. Schneider, a cheesemaker for more than 20 years, is witty, warm and evangelical about his métier. “Neal’s Yard Dairy is a lighthouse for people who commit their whole lives to this craft, to this energy,” he explains as he takes us into a one-time stable and now maturing room. “The demarcation is those who want to just churn out cheese and stuff cranberries in it. They are not about craft.”

In the stone-walled maturing room where 700 wheels of mottled cheeses stand stacked side by side on wooden racks, jokes and banter subside. This is serious. If the cheeses do not pass muster, then Schneider will be out of pocket and Neal’s Yard will be short of supply at its most critical time. Schneider turns down one of the room’s five aisles and wields his cheese iron with determination. Initial comments are cautious: “I feel like the flavour’s holding back,” reflects Lockwood, as he rubs a lump of cheese made in midsummer between thumb and forefinger to test the texture. The next cheeses are declared “a bit podgy” and then, “quite nice”. We work our way through every batch made from the end of July to September. The mood starts to lift, as the cheeses taste increasingly buttery, rich and moreish. “I feel really positive about these, Joe,” says Percival. “These cheeses are good,” agrees Lockwood. “We can definitely sell them.” Everyone in the room palpably relaxes.

The next day, with Colston Bassett and Stichelton batches in the bag, we turn south to Leicestershire to visit the newest kid on the Christmas cheese block, Sparkenhoe Blue. “The pie for blue cheese isn’t fixed, it’s expanding,” explains Lockwood as we turn up a long lane towards an elegant farmhouse. “The next step is working with Sparkenhoe, who make Red Leicester — this year they started developing a blue which might just turn out to be a Stilton.”

We are greeted at the door by David Clarke, 50, who leads us past his beloved herd of award-winning Friesians to the production unit. “We were cruising along comfortably but only using half our milk,” he explains. “The milk prices were getting worse so it made sense to try something new.”

Inside a spanking new maturing room, Clarke’s blue Stilton-style cheese sits on metal trolleys with wooden shelves. He pulls a trolley out from the back and, unabashed, shows me the very first batch. They are a sorry sight — lopsided and collapsing in on themselves. “We budgeted to throw away 20 per cent in the first year,” he says happily. With persistence, practice and some hands-on help from Schneider, later batches prove sufficiently promising that Percival and Lockwood agree to trial a few over Christmas. They look almost as tickled as Clarke. “Blue cheese is really difficult,” says Clarke.

“I wasn’t sure we could do it but now I think we can.” We take our leave, Christmas blue cheese selections complete for 2017.

Two months later, in the run-up to the holidays, Schneider stands inside the busy Borough shop handing out samples of Stichelton. “It’s such a buzz,” he says, beaming. “It lifts you up when they taste yours and like it.” Outside, Lockwood is supposedly manning the queues. “On the days before Christmas, after five past seven, I’m supposed to turn them away. But here’s a dirty little secret,” he says with a conspiratorial grin, “I never do!” The queue behind him builds, the demand for Christmas cheese seemingly unending.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library. ‘Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes and the Fight for Real Cheese’ by Bronwen and Francis Percival, (12.99, Bloomsbury)

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