‘I don’t want to eat in any of these places.’
Gia and I stared out of the bus windows. My sister had come down to visit me for a few days and we had been out in London for the day and were looking for a restaurant. We weren’t much impressed.
‘Oh I know, let’s get off here and go to Carluccio’s for salami. We can change onto the 38 and then go home and have a picnic.’
We walked up through Covent Garden market, past street entertainers and the throngs of people queueing for the Hard Rock café and northwards past the tube station. Gia and I have a long standing love for Italy, having holidayed in the same house in the Abruzzo every year since she was born. As a consequence, Italian cured meats and olives are not only tasty in their own right but are also a nostalgic reminder of sun drenched days, friends who have watched us grow up and treat us as extended family, relaxation and happiness. We made a beeline for Carluccio’s, selected our cured meat purchases and carried on towards Shaftesbury Avenue.
For some reason at one of the road junctions, we looked up towards Seven Dials and saw the cheese shop.
‘Hey, let’s go there! It’d be like the shops in Boulogne!’
Part of the cherished family tradition had been that as both our parents taught, they too had long summer holidays and we usually went out to Italy for at least 6 weeks every year. My Dad taught Italian so for him it was invaluable in keeping in practice. We needed a car when we were out there and low cost airlines weren’t anything more than a glint in Michael O’Leary’s eye so we drove out, putting the car onto a train at Boulogne and then taking the train on through to Milan where we arrived for breakfast the following morning. In the hours we had to kill between the time the ferry arrived and the time the train left, we had got into the habit of buying a particularly superior picnic for the train: Camemberts, Chevres, Baguettes, Celeri Remoulade, Carrots Rapees, Tartes aux Fraises and, when we were considered old enough, Normandy Cider.
We had never seen a cheese shop in the UK that looked even remotely like the fromageries of Boulogne. Cheese in the UK seemed to be kept away from customers, behind glass, vacuum packed in plastic, its personality and character suppressed. Not in this place.
The door creaked open, we entered the richly cheese scented, cellar cool air. We had no idea what to buy. An enormous slate counter stretched in front of us, piled high with every sort of cheese our hearts could desire. All around the shop walls, shelves were bursting with cloth wrapped huge truckles of what I would later recognise as Cheddar, Cheshire, Lancashire. We scoured the counter looking for a name we recognised from our French cheese purchasing that we could identify and purchase and we found nothing.
A cheery man of about 6 foot tall with short cropped blonde hair greeted us and tried to get us to try something. We needed a minute to take the experience in and, being British, we were reluctant to say yes.
‘Go ahead and look,’ the blonde man I would later call Jacob said. He turned to one of his colleagues.
‘The Wigmore is escaping again.’
A girl in a white chefs jacket and white wellies emerged from behind the counter and picked up a wooden board with the offending Wigmore cheese. It was liquid and was heading off the board and onto the floor. It looked great.
She brought it back behind the counter and noticing that we were following its progress with our eyes, Jacob offered us a taste. It was vegetal, cauliflower-like even, savoury and cheese in liquid form.
‘It’s a bit over the top to be honest,’ he said, ‘I prefer it when it’s not gone quite that far.’
We loved it. We bought a whole quarter of a pound.
I now look back on that purchase with a modicum of embarrassment. We bought three very small pieces of cheese. I paid for them with a cheque, which I now know is the most fiddly way to pay imaginable. These days I rarely buy anything under 500g of cheese – if you’re going to buy cheese, you may as well seriously BUY CHEESE. I spent under a tenner and I took ages about it too.
If this was in any way frustrating to Jacob (and in retrospect, I suspect it was), he gave absolutely no sign of it whatsoever. He was helpfulness personified. Whatever we wanted to taste, we could. No need to say thank you, it was just what they were there for. We left with our 3 small pieces of cheese in a little white plastic bag and resolved to return. We had to bring our Dad in there. We now realised that we didn’t recognise any of the cheese names because all those very many cheeses were all British or Irish! Not a French one among them. Remembering my father’s laments over the no longer being able to buy the Tasty Lancashire or unpasteurised Stilton of his childhood, we knew he would enjoy this shop.
The picnic was very satisfying by the way.
My graduation, my parents wedding anniversary, a belated 21st birthday bash for me and an early 18th birthday bash for Gia was held at the end of the year. As a special treat, we decided to try out the Neal Street Restaurant, Antonio Carluccio’s restaurant at the time. Since we were in the area, we took my dad to the cheese shop. It was Saturday, the place was heaving but as he spent a full 45 minutes in there tasting everything and spending a considerable amount of money, we hung around at the doorway so other customers could actually get inside. We were a group of 6 (including Jack). That’s all the people the shop could fit on the customer side of the counter. As it turned out, this meant we had plenty of time to read and re-read the notice in the window that said they were looking for cheese loving staff.
I had graduated by this point and was hoping that inspiration would strike me as to what I wanted to do. The only thing I did know is that as the child of two teachers, I wasn’t going to follow them into the teaching profession. My dad was counting the days to his retirement already and sadly he still had several years to go. I had vaguely voiced the idea of working in a shop just to pay the rent and was hoping that somewhere along the line a blinding revelation would happen and my future career would become clear.
‘Well you could definitely do worse than working here,’ my Mum pointed out.
It was idiosyncratic, characterful, cheery, welcoming, the staff banter indicated that they were all great friends and they were selling some delicious cheeses. I gave them a call.