Twice a week at 4.30am Bill Oglethorpe leaves his flat in Streatham, London and drives for 50 minutes to an organic farm outside Sevenoaks in Kent. When he arrives the cows have just finished milking. He unloads his squat 20l aluminium churns and pours a little of his fermented milk starter into the bottom of each one. The milk comes straight out of a tank in the milking parlour, through a pipe and into the churn at the temperature it leaves the cow’s body: 30C. Bill fastens on the lids, heaves the churns into the back of the van and heads off to his Kappacasein Dairy in Bermondsey. In just a few hours the milk in the churns will have been transformed into five fat wheels of cheese. Bermondsey Hard Pressed cheese goes from udder to a recognisable cheese in a little over seven hours.
Cheese makers perform a daily alchemy, turning a perishable ingredient – milk – into something durable, storable and dense with protein: cheese. But to be a cheese maker you must rise, like Bill, before dawn to fetch your milk – and not just any milk. The French cheesemonger, Pierre Androuët talks about cheese having a cru, or growth, just like wine. Instead of the quality of the grape, it is the milk that is the first (and possibly the most fundamental) thing a cheese maker must get right.
William Oglethorpe sounds like a very English name, but this cheese maker is a Frenchman raised in Tanzania and Switzerland, where he learnt his craft in the Swiss Alps. The simple way cheese was made there (by heating raw milk) appealed to him, as did the relatively small amount of equipment needed. I join him as he starts work on the first cheese of the day, similar to an Alpine Tomme de Montagne.
The Kappacasein dairy occupies a railway arch in a grimy part of Bermondsey but the cheese making room is scrupulously clean and brightly lit. Into a weathered copper cauldron brought back from Switzerland, churn after churn of milk is poured, heated and rennet added. The mixture is stirred vigorously and left to coagulate for about half an hour. When it is time to cut the curd Bill slices the fragile mixture with an implement called a “harp”. This is a long-handled piece of wood with eight metal strings strung from two metal bars. He swings the tool back and forth in a figure-of-eight.
As the consistency of the curd changes, Bill focuses intently on the state of it and spreads out his fingers so that the small pieces of curd catch between them. When he is happy with the consistency, electric metal paddles are clamped to the top of the cauldron, a gas jet is lit underneath and the curd is scalded (in an Alpine dairy a fire would have been lit under the cauldron) for half an hour.
Next, a long piece of coarse cheesecloth is wrapped around a curved metal pole, pushed under the curd and pulled up to contain it. Cheese makers need thick skins; the milk can be sometimes so hot that they must first plunge their arms in ice-cold water before immersing them in the cauldron. The cloth pouch is lifted up, filled with enough curd for one cheese and then squeezed before the clumpy mixture is dumped into a round cloth-lined, wooden frame. The frames are stacked up and clamped into a metal press; over the next hour the curds are lifted out and packed down again four times.
The transformation from clumps of curd to a large floppy wheel of creamy-coloured cheese seems very quick. On the final round of pressing, a thin sliver of rubber embossed with the words “Bermondsey Hard Pressed” is pushed between the cheese and the frame. The milk is no more; this is a cheese and a named cheese at that.
Upstairs, Bill’s cheese-storage room is like a chapel. The only light comes from a long vertical window and the blue glow of the fly-zapper. The shadowy outlines of about 60 cheeses sit on planks of spruce.
Two or three times a week Bill has to flip the hard cheeses and wash them with a salty brine. To taste, we squeeze small amounts of cheese between our fingers – the youngest are bland, but as they age the flavours become more complex, and the older ones have a pleasant pineapple tang. At four to six months the taste becomes interesting, at eight months, lovely.
Cheese makers need strength but also patience and resilience; the early days of a cheese making can be fraught with disappointment. The time involved and the possibility that so much work may go to waste if a batch is spoiled are chastening. I wonder at the fortitude and perseverance it takes. The process of improvement never ends but it seems to suit someone like Bill, a cheese maker-philosopher with a mind that is open to endless variation. Our conversation strays from cheese to the human mind, endurance running, meditation and Nietzsche. The day’s tasks are approached with humour. Cheese makers learn through mistakes; in this case, failure can be a force for good.
This is an edited extract from ‘The Modern Peasant: Adventures in City Food’ by Jojo Tulloh (published by Chatto & Windus on May 30, £16.99)
Make your own
Labneh is a very basic cheese made across the eastern Mediterranean. Pour about 500ml of homemade or shop-bought yoghurt into a sieve lined with a muslin or a clean J-cloth that has been sprinkled with a little sea salt. What you are aiming to do is allow the liquids to drain away into a bowl for five or six hours, then turn the cheese out on to a plate.
You can shape it into little balls or mix it with herbs (traditionally mint, dill, chive or spring onions), salt and spices to your taste. Allow two to four tablespoons of fresh herbs per 500ml of yoghurt.