This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.
In Britain, our collective understanding of Mexican food seldom veers beyond Old El Paso fajita sets and high street burrito chains. But while we lag woefully behind our taco-customising and Michelada-chugging American cousins, we are starting to dip a tentative toe into more authentic Mexican food.
One pioneer is Kristen Schnepp, who makes Mexican cheese in a tiny South London railway arch.
Until 2012, Schnepp worked in corporate marketing, a pinstripe slave to the conference call, before turning 44 and deciding that enough was enough. She founded Gringa Dairy in Peckham and began her journey bringing Mexican cheese to the London masses.
"I'd been whinging about doing something different and my partner told me she wanted a business plan for her birthday," Schnepp explains. "That was March and her birthday was in June. I started looking for a space in August, signed the lease in November, did the build out over winter, got approved, and our first cheese was sold in April 2013."
OK, so the mole wave has yet to crash forth onto English shores but Schnepp's tiny dairy is working to capacity, specialising in queso Oaxaca, a Chihuahua melting cheese, and the firmer fresco—three of Mexico's most popular cheese but ones that barely make it out of Central America, let alone across the Atlantic.
Toto, we're not in the Tesco cheese aisle anymore …
"People always ask me, 'Why Mexican cheese?' and my stock answer is, 'People don't need another Cheddar.' But really I wanted to make something that there was an opportunity for," says Schnepp. "The quality and quantity of Mexican produce in the UK has really improved and the fact that there's a Mexican food craze in New York shows it's likely to happen in London."
Settling on Mexican cheese, rather than a nice Stilton or Brie sounds pretty random until you discover Schnepp grew up in Central California, an area with a dominant Mexican food culture.
Her mission to bring Mexican cheese to London has been one of blood, sweat, and whey, dodging challenges at every corner, not least the hugely demanding timetable of cheesemaking. It requires such early starts and round-the-clock dedication that Schnepp's colleague Jeremy lives on the premises during the week.
Each day starts at 4 AM, when Jeremyx drives to a farm in Kent to buy raw milk to which he adds biocultures and gets things moving. Upon arrival back in Peckham, the mixture is poured into a vat to allow the curds to separate from the whey with help from animal rennet (Schnepp opts for the traditional meat-derived enzyme as she says veggie rennet can impart a bitter flavour in fresh cheeses.)
Schnepp invites me into the cheesemaking room and let it be said that this is serious business. Dirt is the cheesemaker's nemesis, so it's on with the hairnet, disinfected rubber boots, antiseptic hand gel, and off with any dangerous contaminants. This is also where Schnepp gets a teensy bit scary.
"Cheesemaking is viewed as high risk as it's animal product and there are lots of things that can go wrong," she says. "But people act as if raw milk is nitroglycerin. People have an irrational fear of raw milk when in actuality we've had nothing happen in the UK."
Aside from having to throw away a contaminated batch, what's the worst that could happen?
"You can kill people," says Schnepp.
That hairnet makes sense now.
Today, the team is making queso Oaxaca. Once the curds start separating, they're cut with fishing wire strung onto racks in a grid structure. It's the size and shape of the space between the wires that determines the nature of the eventual cheese.
The crumbly curd is dumped into plastic boxes where it clumps together. Once coagulated, Schnepp and her team slice and bathe it in a sous vide, then a second bath with whey.
Then the fun part: each piece is shaped into long worms and laid out on a big metal table. The strings are then salted, before being expertly wound into the yarn balls. As it's fresh cheese, it can be eaten there and then so all told, the milk goes from cow to cheese board in less than a working day.
As we admire our handywork, Schnepp tells me that London's cheese scene is thriving. "There's Wildes in Tottenham, where the guy does lots of experimental stuff, then Blackwoods in Brockley. Plus Bill at Kappacasian, who pretty much pioneered urban cheesemaking by breaking down the relationship between owning the cows and making the cheese."
But anyone tempted by a similar move should take heed. "You've got to really want it. With cheese, lots of things can go wrong and it cost about £70 k to get started," says Schnepp, with refreshing American honesty.
If you're not quite ready to fully submerge your life in whey, the second best bet—Schnepp says—is to get to know your cheese a bit better.
"I wouldn't eat a £1 cornershop cheddar as you can't guarantee the ethics behind it. Dairy farmers in the UK are in a very precarious position and they're going out of business every day," she says. "When it comes to artisan products, people shouldn't be asking, 'Why is this cheese expensive?' They should be asking, 'Why is supermarket cheese so cheap?'"
All photos by Dante Fewster Holdsworth.