Cult Shop: the London cheesemonger fit for a king
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
As festive traditions go, a 20-minute queue might not be to everyone’s taste. But to loyal customers of Paxton & Whitfield cheesemongers, the season wouldn’t be the same without lining up at its Jermyn Street flagship. “Our customers say, ‘My grandfather got in the queue at Paxtons, my father did it, my son will do it,’” jokes head of retail Hero Hirsh.
Paxtons started as a market stall in 1742, opened its St James’s premises in 1896, has three further shops across the UK and has held royal warrants since 1850. All of its British cheeses come directly from the makers, many of whom Paxtons has worked with since they started out. Traditional customs meet modern technology and an obsessive attention to detail with regards to the offering. “We like our Montgomery’s cheddar to have been made on a Tuesday,” says Hirsh of the Somerset maker that uses a different starter culture each day of the week. “And last year we built our own maturation facility so we can age cheeses to a very specific age profile.”
Cheese selection advice is expert and unpretentious. Of putting together a board from the 100 or so varieties on display, Hirsh advises choosing fewer options and bigger pieces. “Four is a good number, but try for balance. And there should always be a blue.”
The blue laid out today is a Cropwell Bishop Stilton (£32 per kilo), buttery-soft and sweet with a herby, salty tang. Hirsh serves it on Paxton & Whitfield sourdough crispbreads, topped with quince paste. “This shop alone sells six and a half tonnes of Stilton in December,” says Hirsh, helping herself to more. Paxton & Whitfield was one of the first cheesemongers to bring Stilton to the UK market; the English variety is still its bestselling item.
Also on the board is a firm and fruity Cullum (£47 per kilo), a British ewe’s-milk cheese exclusive to Paxtons that has just won silver at the World Cheese Awards. Next up is Schnebelhorn (£50 per kilo), a Swiss Alpine hard cheese that’s been aged for eight months. The star is a ripe and creamy Rollright (£14.95), made by former Paxtons employee David Jowett in the style of a French reblochon. Hirsh carefully trims the top off the peach-coloured rind before slathering it over a crispbread.
The accompanying selection of crackers, pickles and drinks is extensive. “I’d go with our own English sparkling wine,” says Hirsh, “but some people prefer to move to heavier wines like our 10-year tawny port.” Downstairs, customers will find accessories from camembert bakers to cheesemongers’ knives (“with a little step, so you don’t drag your knuckles through your brie”, says Hirsh).
Virtual tastings (£45) and Academy of Cheese courses (£195) are offered for those who are looking to “expand your lexicon as you talk about the flavours you’re experiencing”, says Hirsh. And for those for whom cheese is for life, not just for Christmas, a Paxtons’ subscription offers a monthly curation (from £120).