Laura Ivill dons a plastic pinny and a cheap netted hat to join a cheese-making class with the Hairy Bikers of the fromage fraternity on an industrial site in north London
Did you know it takes ten litres of milk to make one kilo of cheese? Or that homogenised milk is a highly processed form of the natural stuff with a degraded taste and texture? Or that you can make your own cheese cheaply and simply, with almost no equipment, on your kitchen table? It’s all part of a hands-on day with the urban, artisanal cheese-makers of north London, Wildes.
Arriving at an industrial unit in the wilds (indeed) of Tottenham N17, the jolly figures of founders Philip Wilton and Keith Sides (the Hairy Bikers of the cheese world) warmly welcomed our group of 12 with coffee, biscuits and banter. Philip is the joker (“This is an American ‘starter’ for making cheese… so it might come out as string cheese.”); whereas Keith is the most gentle and encouraging fellow you could ever meet. They go to great lengths to make as much out of the day as they can with lots of information, explanation, practical tasks and jokes, although much of your time is spent standing around taking the temperatures of buckets of milk – cheese-making simply can’t be hurried.
It happened to be Valentine’s Day, and, apart from a chap called Mark who, like me, had come on his own, everyone else was in a pair or a couple. The first thing to know about cheese-making is … there is not an ounce of glamour in it. If you bring your other half to make cheese, be prepared to spend your day up to your elbows in curd, wearing a cheapo hair net and a disposable plastic pinny. “Dinner lady chic” is the kindest description.
The other thing to know is that Philip and Keith are used to working all day, winter and summer, in temperatures of 10C and below. Perhaps they no longer feel the cold. Thermals are to be recommended, a body warmer and thick socks to keep your spirits up. They keep you smiling with lashings of tea, coffee, biscuits, homemade cake, a freshly prepared vegetarian lunch and delicious cheese boards throughout the day in the “warm room”.
Phillip and Keith, partners in business and at home, have taken up cheese-making later in life as a creative way to work for themselves, starting on the kitchen table, then moving into a small unit and, in 2015, trading up to this bigger unit where they make and mature all their handmade cheeses. Wildes’ usp, says Philip, is experimentation of a genuinely hand-crafted product. They sell direct to customers at London markets – Alexandra Palace, Woolwich Arsenal and Tottenham Green – and a list of delis and restaurants is on their website.
Partnering with local breweries is a big story for Wildes right now – the latest is with Beavertown. “We are making a beer-soaked cheese; we actually soak the curds in beer, which gives a strong colour and a taste of the beer to the cheese,” Philip says. “Making cheese is easy,” Keith explains, “it’s maturing it that takes care.” He shows us their three maturing rooms, where large chilly cheeses are in various stages of maturation, from fresh buttery yellow, to those covered in fine white “fur” that they wash off to create the rind. Rows of cranky, ugly, crusty-looking cheeses are those ready for market.
Temperature is critical to cheese-making, it’s what differentiates your curd cheese from your mozzarella from your hard cheese, all of which we make to take away. All three contain just three ingredients – milk, which you separate into curds and whey by the addition of a starter (a bit like adding yeast to flour), and rennet, a coagulant. The hard cheese gets a bit of salt as a preservative.
I am now maturing two hard cheeses in my fridge. It takes a minimum of four weeks, but you are the judge. All I do is turn them upside down every few days so that they don’t get a soggy bottom, and wash the fur off with brine. Each is maturing differently, but both are wonderfully weird things – curious, mouldy, hairy lumps that I will, one day, present to my dinner guests as “fine English cheese, handmade in Tottenham”.
What: One-day cheese-making class
Where: Wildes Cheese, the Micro Dairy, Units 9 and 10 Frontier Works, 33 Queen Street London N17
(wildescheese.co.uk, 07758 755248)
How much: £150, includes lunch, refreshments and loads of cheese you make to take home