On an industrial estate in North London, Keith Sides and Philip Wilton are demonstrating the intricacies of artisan cheesemaking. Here, throughout the week, the founders of Wildes cultivate their own versions of classic cheeses, before, on a Friday, they have the pleasure of teaching philistines such as me how it’s done.
We start, for inspiration, by tasting them. First up, a Napier: modelled on the Northern hard cheeses, Wensleydale and Lancashire, it’s tangy, lactic, disarmingly delicate. Then, the exquisite and versatile London Blue, which can be eaten when soft, semi-hard or hard. And finally, the Londonshire, a glorious soft cheese in the style of a Saint-Félicien or Marcellin, which knocks my socks off. Keith bats aside my wild admiration. “As a cheesemaker, the prize is in hard cheese, because that’s what takes the time, the imagination. With soft cheese, sometimes I’m taking the money for it before I’ve paid for the milk.”
Ah yes, milk. People often think the connoisseur’s choice is unpasteurised, but that’s not quite right. Pasteurisation is the process of taking the milk over 72˚C for at least 15 seconds (and no more than 25), which doesn’t change the structure but does the useful job of eradicating the bits that kill you. The real problem is overpasteurisation, which changes the molecular structure and is really an act of vandalism (though even that isn’t as bad as homogenisation).
You’ve created Barbados for bacteria
We are given three buckets, one for each cheese, the milk now at 32 degrees. The contents will start to become cheeses when a culture is introduced. Rule one, says Keith: you’re not a cheesemaker. “You’re producing a lovely home for bacteria. You’re like god. You’ve created Barbados for bacteria,” he adds, as Philip rolls
It strikes me that all the skill of cheesemaking is in developing the cultures to produce your perfect cheese. The gentlemen of Wildes have already done that, so essentially all we have to do is introduce the scantest amount to the milk, then stand back for a bit to marvel at the incredible process. Though not quite all – we need to add rennet, which is a collection of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminants (you can get a vegetarian version, which is better, as the process of harvesting it from animals makes everyone sad).
It takes an hour or so for the mixture to solidify, separating into curds and whey. We’re left with a bucket full of a solid which is kind of silken tofu in consistency: it holds together, but it’s wobbly. We slice this mixture into inch-wide segments, with a knife, before making a kind of cat’s cradle with our hands and swirling our buckets, once every 15 minutes or so, four or five times. It is a very odd sensation, halfway between satisfying and disgusting.
Provided you have a modern cheesecloth, made of blue plastic – far less aesthetic than a traditional one, but a thousand times better – it’s the work of five minutes to squeeze out the whey, and squish the cheese into a mould. There is nothing remotely complex or technical about this part of the process, but it is profoundly
pleasing, in a timeless, wholesome sort of way.
The ageing, meanwhile, is much more delicate: two days in the open, during which the London Blue starts to grow furry and look a bit like something out of Where the Wild Things Are , while the Napier starts to settle and harden, and the Londonshire shrinks unbelievably into the shape of a plausible real soft cheese. Thereafter, into the fridge, for two weeks, or seven, according to your very own judgment. Look after the humidity – which for practical purposes means spraying it with water – until the time is ripe. How to judge this? Well, the only way to stop a cheese maturing is to eat it.