Most recounts of visits to cheese-makers seem to involve the word ‘bucolic’ and descriptions of jade-green grass and tumbling verges. Often cows feature, grazing contentedly in a hazy middle distance. Not so on my visit to Wildes Cheese. Stepping out from the train station, the only green to be spotted is the odd blowsy branch of elderflower hanging off the rail embankment and some plantains piled up outside a local shop. Tottenham is many things but a rural idyll is not one of them.
Mind you, the Wilde’s dairy is so tucked away that it may as well be down miles of country lanes. I walk past strips of shops and through housing estates in my search, before coming across a small industrial estate. It seems to house an eclectic mix of businesses, as joiners and glaziers rub shoulders with fudge-makers and a pyrotechnician. I’m accompanied by the sound of someone playing a mouth organ as I peer into different units, before finally I’m being waved at by Philip Wilton and his partner Keith Sides and ushered into their premises.
Wildes Cheese started in 2012. Philip had been made redundant from his job as a management consultant (‘It was brilliant – I got paid to go away from work!’) and decided it was time to pursue a life-long love of food. At a time when artisan produce was on the rise, they thought about bread, jam or cakes but, as Philip says, ‘we’d always been great fans of cheese and spent far more money than was normal on it so cheese it was.’
For a few months they toyed with the idea of moving out to the countryside, driven by some sort of feeling that you couldn’t make cheese in a city: ‘It was like we thought it was illegal or some sort of crime, that you had to live in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by green fields,’ says Philip. But the intense summer riots of 2011, coupled with an enforced stay in the countryside for a few weeks, made up their minds. ‘The penny dropped,’ says Keith. ‘We’d been here for thirty years, our friends are here. Tottenham has had a bad name over the years but it’s our community and we wanted to stay and help be a part of rebuilding it.’
Spurred on by the nascent success of London’s microbreweries, they set to work. Philip took a cheesemaking course at Nantwich’s renowned Reaseheath College and, after first making cheese at home in the kitchen, they quickly realised that they needed more space. They took on a small unit in the industrial estate in June 2012 and the business began, targeting local farmers’ markets at first. ‘On the eighteenth of November 2012, we made our first sale,’ recalls Keith. ‘I remember, it was torrential rain. Someone said “I’ll have 100g of that” and put money in my hand. I couldn’t quite believe it.’
Since then, they’ve steadily grown and now sell to markets, delis and from a prestigious spot in London’s Borough Market. They produce a core range of cheeses: the Londonshire is their best-seller, a brie-esque cheese, tending to soft and runny inside with a velvet white coat. Highcross is a fresh cheese which matures in salt, water and lemon and is beloved by local Eastern Europeans and Latin Americans. Howard, a semi-hard cheese with a hint of blue, is gorgeously named after local hero Luke Howard, the man who named clouds (‘Blue and white – clouds. Do you see what I’ve done there?’) Alexandra is their prize-winner, a semi-hard cheese, named for the market they make it for. A mozzarella, traditional hard cheeses and an ever-changing variety of fresh and curd cheeses completes the range but, as I’m soon to find out, there’s no such thing as a definitive ‘Wildes Cheese’…
Their decision to produce lots of different cheeses, rather than the usual artisan strategy of concentrating on perhaps two or three, and sell them within a small geographical area is both a philosophical and ethical one. ‘Lots of cheesemakers make three or four cheeses and sell them from John O’Groats to Land’s End via Bombay,’ says Philip, ‘but we don’t plan to cross the North Circular. I don’t really like crossing the river if I’m honest…’
It’s about a passion and belief in local food, which goes hand in hand with their insistence on paying a living London wage and minimising their impact on the environment. Philip is also passionate about paying farmers a fair price for their milk: ‘The price we pay for our milk looks outrageous if you compare it to the price you would pay in a supermarket but we believe it’s the right thing to do. People don’t realise that we’re destroying British farming and, once it’s gone, we won’t get it back.’
Personal passion plays a big part in their cheese-making choices too – that and personal tastes. Philip doesn’t make blue-veined cheeses, pulling a face at the thought: ‘It’s just wrong to eat it…the mould…it’s like eating rhubarb. It’s not right, is it, with its big poisonous leaves?’ Their philosophy is also that no cheese is set in stone. Even their regular core of cheeses are subject to experimentation – a different starter here, some rind-washing there, perhaps a little soaking in brine, or maturing for longer to see what happens. Their deputy cheese-maker, Rodolfo, a maths graduate and man of precision, has suggested compiling fact-files to explain the different cheeses but his pleas are unsurprisingly falling on Philip’s deaf ears.
Every couple of weeks or so they make an experimental cheese. To describe cheesemakers as alchemists is not a new concept but at Wildes they take the notion further; there’s a touch of the mad professor’s laboratory about the dairy. As I walk around, there’s evidence of their trials all about: a pot of crushed cumin seeds, a fridge full of wild garlic, a jar of dried chillies, even the teabags could be next in the vat. Embracing their philosophy of local food and also seasonality, a forager friend of theirs tracks down local bounty for them, in return for cheese: they’ve had North London chervil, walnuts and quinces, some of which has found its way into the cheese.
Previous experiments have included a rose and hibiscus cheese inspired by German dairies using fresh flowers to mature their cheeses, cheese matured in coffee, inspired by Rodolfo’s Venezuelan roots, and a mozzarella soaked in lime juice and water. He shows me their latest experiment, a maturing round they are calling ‘the windy cheese’. This is their attempt to ‘create a cheese with blue holes in’ and the name comes from the fact that the starter culture they use (propionic, often used in holey Swiss numbers like Emmental) creates gas inside the cheese. ‘So it’s a windy cheese because of the gas,’ laughs Philip. ‘Basically we are like a bunch of twelve year old boys!’ So far, results have been mixed – a little blue with no holes, holes with no blue – but I get the impression that the fun is in the trying rather than the succeeding.
They have only recently moved into a new, larger unit on the estate and this too has affected their cheeses. Also they have two different ‘caves’ and even though they are ostensibly the same temperature and humidity, they can produce very different results. Interestingly Philip talks about how different people produce different cheeses too, describing how he and Rodolfo can stand next to each other and use the same process to make the same cheeses but they will turn out very different. I suspect the men’s different approaches complement each other. Philip rolls his eyes and glances at Rodolfo, who is clearly used to Philip’s teasing: ‘He’d stick everything on a bloody spreadsheet whereas I’m more “give it a slap, yep it’s ready!”‘
I ask Philip if he’s ever encountered cheese snobbery within the industry because of their unconventional approach. ‘Definitely,’ he replies. It’s not like anything’s ever been said but we tend to get ignored by the cheese elite because we don’t do things the ‘correct’ way. We experiment and think “ooh, let’s use a cheddar and a brie starter together and see what happens. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.’
There’s a pervading sense of fun in the dairy, of people working hard but not wanting a job to turn into a burden. The high costs of working in the capital are clearly not always easy and there’s also the fear that further expansion will demand a production-line rigour that Philip doesn’t want (‘The day I have to sit and fill in a massive spreadsheet for hours is the day I’m out of here.’) But expanding they are, investing in a larger vat and unit, seeking out new markets for their cheeses and riding the wave of experimental food in London, such as a current demand for poutine curds.
In many ways Wildes cheese are the epitome of modernity and innovation: a dairy situated in the grimy backstreets of London, miles from the nearest cow, and outlaws from the ‘proper way’ of doing things. But, looking at it another way, they are perhaps making cheese exactly as it would have been made centuries ago on countless British farms up and down the land that were governed by seasonal availability (wild garlic anyone?), the vagaries of local markets and a necessity that embraced variation. For all their ambition and expansion, I get the feeling that their favourite markets are still the local ones where regular customers are happy to embrace variation, a little craziness and, perhaps soon, the world’s first holey blue cheese.
With thanks to all at Wildes Cheese for being so generous with their time (and cheese!)