Food by VICE

These Cheesemakers Are Practising Alchemy in a London Industrial Unit

“Cheese is the last alchemy. You take a basic food stuff like cow’s milk and can create thousands of different types of cheese,” says Philip Wilton, head cheesemaker at Tottenham’s Wilde Cheese. “If you think about it, it really should not be possible."

by Emli Bendixen
May 4 2016, 12:00pm

All photos by the author.

"Cheese is a job for the patient," says cheesemaker Philip Wilton, while his partner Keith Sides nods in agreement. "It takes time for a natural cheese to develop a flavour and that can't be rushed."

But for Wilton and Sides, this finely tuned aging process so necessary for artisan cheese production isn't happening in the Devonshire countryside or an ancient cellar. We're standing in a small industrial unit no bigger than a double garage in Tottenham, North London.

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The pair founded urban cheese-making business Wildes Cheese in even stranger premises, though. Three years ago, they began making cheese from their kitchen, also in Tottenham. Soon realising that you need a lot of space to make the stuff on a large scale (it takes 10 litres of milk to make 1 kilogram of cheese), Wilton and Sides decided to relocate. But not too far.

wilde-cheese-tottenham

Samples from North London cheesemakers, Wildes Cheese. All photos by the author.
wildes-cheese-north-london Inside the Tottenham industrial unit Wildes Cheese use to manufacture and age their cheese.

"We wanted to show that we are proud of where we live and want to be part of its regeneration. Tottenham is our home town it is where we live and our friends live," explains Wilton. "We're not a national cheesemaker, we're a local cheesemaker."

The pair source their milk from a single herd of cows in East Sussex and currently make around eight cheeses, with their most popular offering being the Alexandra, a nutty hard cheese named after nearby Alexandra Palace.

"Cheese is the last alchemy because you take a basic food stuff like cow's milk and with the addition of rennet, cultures, time, and skill you can create thousands of different types of cheese," says Wilton. 'That is real magic. If you think about it, it really should not be possible."

Aside from trading at large London food markets like Borough Market, the pair are among the only British cheesemakers to also run courses in the art. Here, they teach students how to make their own cheese by combining milk, a starter culture, and rennet, using only a bucket, cloth, and colander

Similar to whiskey and wine-making, the basic ingredients and process behind cheese-making may seem simple, but the flavour and texture outcomes vary greatly.

wildes-cheese-making

Using 10 litres of milk warmed to around 30 degrees Celsius, Wilton shows us how to make a stretch curd cheese similar to mozzarella. First, we add cheese culture to warm milk, mixing together the yeasts and enzymes that give the cheese its specific characteristics. As we work, Wilton tells me about one of his latest creations.

"I've created a cheese called 'Howard,' named after Luke Howard who first classified clouds," he says. "It has much the same texture as the Alexandra [cheese] but has an earthy, mild blue flavour. These cheeses were designed to sit together on a cheese board like yin and yang or Cagney and Lacey."

wildes-cheese-alexandra-cheese

After allowing the milk and culture mix to stand for an hour at a stable temperature, we add the rennet to the milk and leave again. Sides uses the time to show me Wildes Cheese's ripening room.

"Because our cheese is made from a single herd of outdoor cows, the milk can vary depending on the time of year and what the cows have eaten," he says. "This means the flavour of our cheese changes slightly as we move through the seasons, the way all natural food is supposed to."

After an hour and a half, we strain and press the curd together until we have an elastic, firm block of cheese which we drop into boiling water to begin stretching. It's undoubtedly a long process, but one that Wilton says is a draw for customers and cheese-making students.

cheese-making-stretch-cheese

"I think customers are more and more interested in the provenance of their food. Proper artisan food doesn't contain hydrogenated fats or other E number additives," he says. "I also think the consumer is bored of the array of bland food that they face. They want something different with a local feel."

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After a few minutes in hot water, the curd has melted enough for us to be able to stretch it by hand (yellow Marigold gloves are optional) into a ball which is then dropped into ice water to ensure the shape is held.

cheese-making-process-tottenham

"I love the excitement it creates when the day comes together and everyone goes home with their handmade cheeses," Wilton admits as he stuffs a bag full of the cheeses I've made.

Later that evening, as I melt those little balls of stretched curd cheese over homemade spinach crepes, I'm pretty excited too.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2015.