"We call it a cave, but as you can see, it's a room with a fan in it. What can I say?" Philip Wilton shrugs, chuckling. He's right: we are, irrefutably, in a small room on an industrial estate, being wafted by the sort of fan you'll find in your local hardware shop. The light is dull, the floors are linoleum – yet where, on the grey metal shelves, you would expect to find white boxes and papers, there sit instead dozens of squat, mottled wheels of cheese, handmade here in Tottenham by Billy, a local lad and London's first proper cheesemaking apprentice, and Wilton, the founder of Wildes Cheese.
I'm introduced to each cheese in turn: "This is a collaboration with Beavertown Brewery up the road – a beer-soaked cheese. This is Ally Pally, sitting here taking its time. This is Napier" – named for the road Wilton lives on – "down here minding its own business. It was awarded London's Favourite Cheese in last year's Urban Food Awards," Wilton smiles. He gazes fondly at its soft, dappled grey rind. We might be in a room with a fan, but there is no doubting the devotion of this proud urban cheesemaker to the cheese he's made with no more than an industrial unit, a few bits of kit and milk sourced each morning from a Sussex dairy farmer. "We haven't called it Rose Cottage. We don't pretend to be anything other than urban cheesemakers," he insists, "and we're in Tottenham because we consciously chose to be here."
We leave the cool of Cave Two, as it's called, and retreat to the warmth of Wilton's office/kitchen/reception ("We're not the highlands of Scotland. Space costs here."), as he tells his story. Wildes Cheese was established in 2012 in the wake of the Tottenham riots, when he saw "ordinary people on the streets clearing up with a broom, helping each other, and decided then and there to support our community and be part of a change here." Before that moment, he'd assumed that to make cheese, he'd have to leave London; he'd just returned from a speculative trip to Wales when the riots happened. Yet today he's one of four producers in London proving otherwise, with cheeses of extraordinary quality and range.
We don't pretend to be anything other than urban cheesemakers. We're in Tottenham because we consciously chose to be here
In addition to Wilton, there's Kristen Schnepp, producing Mexican cheese in Gringa Dairy, Peckham. There's Dave Holten, the youngest of London's cheesemakers, making an Australian-style cheese at Blackwoods dairy in Brockley, and there's Bill Oglethorpe, of Bermondsey-based Kappacasein: the dairy behind that stall in Borough Market, and whose grilled cheese sandwiches are of international standing. Together, they and their cheese recipes span four continents, drawing customers from expat communities across the city – and yet they are all somehow a unique reflection of where they are made in London, and of their makers' backgrounds and personalities.
They have terroir – not, perhaps, in the technical sense, which in cheesemaking refers more to natural factors like soil, climate, and environment that gives a cheese its character – but more broadly speaking. These cheeses are the children of their local communities, of their makers, and the conditions of the railway arch, garage or industrial unit in which they are made. Being London-born makes them no less artisanal, or imbued with character by the surrounding area, as Kristen Schnepp points out. "You can make great cheese with the sound of Old Kent Road rather than cows outside. Just because we're not a bucolic village doesn't mean we lack integrity". Her raw milk string cheese – queso Oaxaca – for example, won a bronze at the 2014 International Cheese Awards – yet in its conception it remains irreducibly SE15.
Schnepp grew up on Mexican fare, having been raised by her parents in California's central valley before moving to south-east London as a young adult. Mexican cheese was a natural choice, as was her Peckham dairy. "We chose to be urban. We chose to be part of our community here. It's close to the farm, and close to our customers, both Latin American expats and locals." Being made with raw – meaning unpasteurised – milk, queso Oaxaca must be made fairly rapidly after milking: hence her sourcing milk from an organic herd in Kent, less than 40 miles away. The taste profile of that day's milk, at the whim of the cows, the climate, the timing and their diet: all is discernible in the soft, mozzarella-like cheese.
Making this and her other Mexican cheese is not easy. Schnepp has had to adapt to the standards of the Department of Health, which render this cheese as it's traditionally made in Mexico illegal, "or as good as". The same is true of many of the cheeses which hail from small, rural producers in Europe, with which we usually associate the word terroir: "many would be banned if someone tried to make them in London today. Even if we could leave milk out overnight to acidify for example, the milk itself is still different," she continues. Cows here have a diet of silage and grass, rather than the corn which dominates Mexican dairy farming. The fact her cheese has been ratified, not just by judges but by the huge swathe of homesick expats – and Thomasina Miers of Mexican restaurant chain Wahaca – who frequent her dairy, is testimony to the equipment and her skill.
Schnepp is not Mexican. Her family has not been making queso fresco for generations, like those making, say, gruyère. She is an American-born Londoner who, like Wilton, learnt her trade after growing disillusioned with the corporate world. She is as far removed from the idyll of the Swiss family milking their cows and making cheese high up in a chalet in Jura as a cheesemaker can get: yet her customers in Peckham and further afield in London's Mexican diaspora are as formative as any village. "When you are serving expats, you can't just do your own thing. You have to find a cheese which pleases a range of people, as every region of Mexico has its own slight variant– and it really matters to them, because it's home."
Peckham is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a 'bucolic village'– "but there is a community here and it is established," Schnepp says warmly. She sells much of her cheese in the local shops, and employs a delivery driver who has been in Peckham his whole life: he's now in his late 60s. "He approached us for a job because he was tired of dealing with the job centre," she continues. "We like to do what we can. We are committed to this area." As for the Mexican expat community, including Mexican chefs, "it is the mothers who decide how good my queso is when they're in town," she laughs. "If I get their support, I'm okay."
These chefs are crucial – for Schnepp perhaps more than any of the cheesemakers in London. Their needs dictate her cheese offering: it is they who, generally speaking, encouraged her to expand her range to include another Mexican cheese. The majority of her cheese is cooking cheese and must thus meet certain criteria to be used in, say, their quesadillas or queso fundido. This demands consistency, which in turn requires her team to be absolutely in tune with each other. "For us, creating the right environment for a cheese includes camaraderie as much as equipment, and real clarity of communication. We're not related, but we are family when it comes to cheese."
It is a science, she continues, but it's also an art, and "you need to stay in touch with it, and know how and when to react." Such subtle differences in strength or sense of time are magnified tenfold when it comes to artisan cheese. Kappacasein's Bill Oglethorpe keeps a logbook, chronicling everything from that morning's milkman and the weather at the time of milking, to that day's maker, who in turn notes down exactly what he did at each stage. "There is always a multitude of choices, and everyone is naturally different in their gestures and decisions," he explains. "It is a very fine balance because of course we need some consistency – but then, too much consistency is exactly what is wrong with industrial cheese."
Oglethorpe's dairy in Bermondsey was the first to pioneer making cheese within an anodyne setting. A converted railway arch in a sprawling residential and industrial area is by its very nature devoid of many of the environmental factors which normally go into an artisan cheese. There aren't the indigenous latent bacteria you might find in, say, an old farmhouse – or at least there are, but you can't be sure if they're the sort that you're after when you first set up. It takes time for a cheesemaker to create the environment that they need, particularly in places with as little character as an industrial unit and a railway arch – even if the latter is closer to a cave than Wilton's small room.
"The ideal would of course be an alpage in the mountains in June, with a pasture full of wild flowers that have never been cultivated…" Oglethorpe grins. Yet his arch – Victorian, grey-bricked and redoubtable – is beautiful in its own way. Oglethorpe has had to work to forge Alpine-style cheese (gruyère and reblochon are his main models) out of dank London, but being in Bermondsey has helped rather than hindered. For a start, a large railway arch was available here, and having worked as an affineur of hard cheese in the maturation arches at Neal's Yard Dairy for years, he knew these great piles of bricks were perfect for keeping the temperatures low and steady. "The additional cooling system I use" – this is, don't forget, 'mountain' cheese – "I saw in our local Bermondsey brewery, and adapted it to cool for the maturing chambers," he continues. He disposes of his whey at the London city farms (Kristen's is collected by a pig farmer in nearby Essex; Blackwoods' by Shoreditch's Lyle's restaurant, for ice cream) and his main markets, Neal's Yard Dairy, and his own Borough Market stall, are just up the road.
The aged Bermondsey Hard-Pressed he washes regularly with brined water to encourage the bacterial growth we call the rind. "I don't need to add anything. By making the environment good for them they just grow naturally. These ones are for next December," he says opening the door of a small chamber in which I can just make out the luminescent pink wheels, silently ageing. "If you compare it to gardening, it's like creating the right fertility, in order to grow the plant that you want." The conditions of the arch, his inspired cooling system, and the hundred-year-old copper vat he brought over from Switzerland all play a part in 'growing' a cheese which, while it varies subtly according to season, milk and maker, is reliably one of Neal's Yard Dairy's best-selling.
"I like this cheese but it takes a long time – 12 to 15 months – to ripen," Oglethorpe says, quietly shutting the door. In the alpine meadow of Oglethorpe's imagination, of course, there's no problem – but on the gold-paved streets of London, that's basically squatting cheese. Every cheese that's ageing is a cheese not earning: taking up prime real estate that would arguably be better served by making fresher cheese with a fast turnaround. As Wilton points out, "our milkman gets paid every week, as does the rent and the rates. Every square inch has to be paid for." Wilton ages for four or five months, max; Oglethorpe can afford to age for longer because he is longer-established – yet all four of London's cheesemakers must have sufficient quantities of fresh cheeses to ensure a steady income: ricotta at Kappacasein, Ellis at Wildes, and Graceburn at Blackwood's: London's youngest dairy and the least able, financially, to embark on an aged cheese.
"Soft cheeses are fun to mature and make, and the turnaround is quicker: you don't need 12 months of stock before you start selling anything." Dave Houlten hails from Australia, and set up Blackwoods with two friends who, like him, had grown up working in their local dairy near Melbourne, Main Ridge. The big cheese there was marinated 'Persian' feta: soft cow's cheese steeped in a blend of extra-virgin olive and rapeseed oils and herbs. "There was nothing like it here, and yet it was really popular where we were from," he says. "We thought we could make a bit." Two-and-a-half years later, and a hobby has turned into a full-time occupation with Houlten making the 'feta', Graceburn, and three other soft cow cheeses in an industrial unit in their London home, Brockley.
Like Oglethorpe, Houlten too worked at Neal's Yard Dairy's maturation rooms – but in a difference that would prove defining, he worked with soft cheese. Creating young cheese at Blackwood's was therefore a question not just of taste or finances, but of experience – and, of course, space. "Do I have arch envy?" Houlten laughs, when I ask why he opted for the industrial unit, rather than railway arches. "Not really. They are good conditions for maturing, but, because we don't keep our cheeses that long, the temperature and humidity we require is more variable." He achieves this in his unit by having rooms within rooms – drawing on the help and equipment of a neighbouring carpenter – and covering the snowy cheeses with plastic sheets to keep the moisture in.
Houlten collects his milk from the same farm as Schepp and Oglethorpe, and with good reason: it's nearby, and the milk is unpasturised and organic. Wilton gets his from a different farm, of similar quality. That the end results are so different is testimony to them and their location – but that starts even from the moment they collect the milk: Houlten collects his in the afternoon; Oglethorpe and Schnepp in the morning. The time of day makes a difference, as does the weather, the cow's diet, the milkman, the starter culture used and whether it is added before the milk is transported or afterwards. All this is before you've even accounted for subsequent stages of processing.
I try all the cheese and wonder that the Bermondsey Hard-Pressed and the Graceburn come from the same city, let alone the same herd of cows
Back to Bermondsey, and Oglethorpe's burnished copper vat, which glows like an orb in his cheesemaking chamber. Though all use different starters, Oglethorpe is the only one of the urban cheesemakers making his own, out of fermented milk from the farm: "I wanted something more holistic – connected to the farm and to here." He gestures around at his arch: clean, solidly comforting, the refined bustle of customers stocking up on Monmouth coffee beans and chutneys nearby. He adds his starter the moment he picks the milk up at the farm; Schepp, Wilton and Houlten follow the more conventional route of buying theirs and adding them at their dairies. Even then, there are differences: Wilton, being the least bound by a rulebook, buys his starters from all over the world and mixes them together. "I can't read French or Italian or Spanish, so I don't. I make it up," he grins. "The Ellis, for example, is a mix of starters for cheddar and French brie." I try some. It's – well, a bit like brie, a bit like cheddar, a bit something else: tangy, fresh, sturdy. I try all the cheese (it's my professional duty) and wonder that the granular, caramelly slice of Bermondsey Hard-Pressed and the luscious, herbaceous Graceburn come from the same city, let alone the same herd of cows.
At the same time, I recall the celebrated oenophiles who can distinguish between neighbouring vineyards just through their wine. This might not be terroir that I'm tasting, but it's something: the taste of collaboration, cultural diversity, localism and dogged perseverance. Forget markets and melting pots: if you're looking for a symbol of today's London, look at its cheese.