Since starting this blog, I’ve been looking forward to meeting my first proper cheese-maker. Whenever I imagined it, I was usually welly-clad in a field, perhaps with the early morning mist floating over the grass as some cows lumbered into the dairy. It’s fair to say that my fromager fantasies didn’t look much like this:
Looking more Albert Square than Ambridge, Gringa Dairy is situated under a railway arch in Peckham, South London. Peckham has a reputation for being bad-ass rather than bucolic but, beyond the ‘don’t go there or you’ll get stabbed’ tabloid headlines, it boasts an eclectic food scene that encompasses events like KERB, restaurants like Peckham Refreshment Rooms and producers such as new craft brewers Brick. Another new kid on the block, Gringa Dairy was founded by American Kristen Schnepp and makes artisan Mexican cheese.
Kristen had just pasteurised the milk when I arrived and was trying to cool it back down against a baking day that saw sweat dripping from our attractive cheese-bonnets. Twice a week (soon to be three times) she gets up at 4am and drives down to Kent to collect still-warm milk from Commonwork Organic Farm. In Mexico, the milk would be left out overnight to acidify naturally but such traditional practices make UK environmental health inspectors twitch. Kristen supplies restaurants (as well as cheesemongers and shops as far afield as Scotland) and some customers are still nervous about raw milk products, hence the pasteurisation, although she hopes to move to raw milk cheese eventually.
Gringa Dairy currently makes queso fresco, which translates as ‘fresh cheese’. An authentic Mexican product, it’s eaten young and is white with a texture somewhere between feta and halloumi – part crumbly, part springy. On the tongue it’s melty and a bit salty with a slight tang. As she busies herself around the cheese-making room, stirring the vat of milk and peering at various instruments that register temperature, acidity and weight, Kristen looks like an old-hand. But in fact Gringa Dairy’s only been in operation for a few months and a couple of years ago you’d have been more likely to catch her Power-pointing than pasteurising. But a love of food, part inspired by her food broker father, plus an adolescence spent amongst California’s Mexican community, caused her to make a move that many only dream of – quitting her high-flying corporate job to make cheese, first in home experiments then through courses at the High Weald Dairy and the School of Artisan Food.
Ask her why Mexican cheese (and let’s face it, everyone probably does) and her stock reply is that ‘No-one needs another cheddar’. But it was Kristen’s business acumen that spotted a gap in the British market that complemented her desire to make cheese. Spend any time in London in the last couple of years and you can’t cross the street without tripping over a taco stand or being fumigated in a haze of tequila. Mexican food is big business now but whilst authentic ingredients like spices and cereals are imported with ease, a product like cheese is trickier to come by. Mexico exports only 3% of its cheese and the vast majority goes to the States but, regardless of this, importing a cold chain product like cheese is expensive and bound up in red tape. Chefs were using substitutes like feta but finding them a poor substitute for the real thing.
Dairy is big in Mexico and the country is ranked tenth in the world for cheese production. Cheese is often cooked with, serving as a foil against spicier dishes (in a similar way to yoghurt and curries) as well as eaten on its own or sliced for tortas (sandwiches). Cows, goats and cheese-making techniques were introduced by the Spanish but the indigenous population soon developed their own way of doing things. A particular challenge for Kristen was to reproduce an authentic taste. Apart from the differing UK health regulations scuppering traditional practices, the cows also eat very differently – a predominantly dry and corn-fed diet in Mexico, whereas British herds are munching on wet grass and winter silage which influences the taste of the milk throughout the seasons. Blending modern and traditional techniques and reconciling the difference in the raw ingredients has taken months of determination, patience and hard work.
I can imagine Kristen being a tough cookie in business but at times with her cheese she can be like a proud and protective mother, describing to me her nervousness when cheese doyennes Juliet Harbutt and Patricia Michelson were tasting her queso fresco (it got the thumbs up). But cheese-making’s not a business for the weak and her time pulling all-nighters in the rat-race wasn’t wasted. On a cheese-making day, there’s no rest after the 4am start and only by the evening is the queso fresco ready, following a relentless day of pasteurisation, adding starters and rennet, cutting the curds, milling, salting, moulding and cleaning up.
And, oh the cleaning up! I was amazed by the spotlessness of Kristen’s one-room operation. When I’ve made cheese at home and a fly has touched down on my curds or I’ve found a cat hair wound into the cheesecloth, I’ve comforted myself by thinking, ‘Ach, people used to make cheese in their barns in all kinds of filth. It’ll be fine.’ But if your vision of a dairy is all wooden cheese-presses and three-legged milking stools, you couldn’t be more wrong. From a questionnaire at the door about whether I’m harbouring nuts or dysentery to the two-stage shoe-changing operation (my flip-flops to crocs and then crocs to funky white wellies that Pan’s People would have been proud to prance in), cheese-making these days is a hygienic business. Surrounded by stainless steel trolleys and scientific equipment, I could have been in an operating theatre were it not for the lovely smell of warm milk in the air.
But Kristen’s serious about her venture and this is all just part of it, a marrying of science and craft, modern red tape and ancient techniques. She’s working on two other cheeses – Chihuahua, a melting cheese thought to have been introduced to Mexico by the Mennonites, and Oaxaca, a string cheese much like mozzarella. Above all, she has a passion to create an authentic product. ‘The best compliment,’ she tells me, ‘Is when Mexican expats like my cheese and say ‘Send my congratulations to your Mexican cheesemaker’.’