“It doesn’t have to be a pastoral fantasy to make cheese. It can be done sustainably in an urban setting, and it engages the local community in food production”, says Kristen Schnepp, one of London’s tiny but growing band of urban cheese-makers.
Schnepp is the founder of Gringa Dairy, which makes organic Mexican cows’ milk cheeses under the railway arches in Peckham. Yes, it really is as quirky as it sounds. It’s a small, cold, pristine room, where we remove our shoes for hygiene reasons before entering.
At its centre is a warm cheesemaking cubicle with glass windows, from which we can see an enormous vat of milk being heated, with rich, creamy skin on top. Soothing classical music, punctuated by the thundering noise of the overhead trains, provides the soundtrack.
Even more unusual than the location is that the cheeses are Mexican. These are rarely available – let alone made – in the UK. Mexico exports only 3% of its cheeses, 99% of which go to the USA – making this venture truly a one-off.
And there’s a good range too: fresh, crumbly, delicate-flavoured queso fresco, used in many Mexican dishes; firm, stringy, queso oaxaca; the melting cooking cheese queso chihuahua (yes, as in the dog – it’s also the name of a Mexican state); and queso luchito, an untraditional cream cheese flavoured with Gran Luchito chilli paste.
The cheeses are made simply from milk, salt and the all-important bacteria. The starter cultures are French, but bought in the UK; and as the cheeses are fresh rather than aged, they last between 12 to 30 days. They are not currently suitable for vegetarians. Schnepp says that she “can get a faint bitter taste from vegetarian rennet in very fresh cheeses, so I just didn’t like the result. I will keep playing with it in future.”
She doesn’t pretend to be Mexican herself – indeed the word ‘gringa’ is the female form of the word ‘gringo’, a Spanish and Portuguese slang term for white foreigners from the USA. (It also happens to be the name of a cheese-filled taco made from flour tortillas.) She grew up in the Central Valley of California, where the dominant culture is Mexican. Her father was a ‘gourmet food broker’ (a brilliant, intriguing job title), and she “always wanted to do something around cheese”.
She moved to London with her partner five years ago, and it was while she was working in business development and marketing that the idea began to take root. She was already a home cheesemaker, but completed a professional course at The School of Artisan Food.
A bundle of energy and exuberant enthusiasm, Schnepp gets up from time to time during our conversation to stir the milk. She makes cheese three times a week, typically leaving at 4 am to obtain milk from the Commonwork Organic Farm in Kent. The milking starts around 5 am, and Schnepp insists on it being very fresh “at cow temperature”.
Back at the dairy, she starts pasteurising it by 6 am. (The aim is to eventually switch to unpasteurised production once they’re better established). By 10.30 am, she’s added cultures and the cheesemaking process, which lasts until around 6 to 8 pm, is well underway. The idea is “to get from cow to plate on the same day”.
Schnepp is committed to supporting British farmers, and is keen to ensure that the business is ethical and sustainable. She supports The Pig Idea, which campaigns to end the EU ban on feeding pigs catering leftovers – so any surplus whey goes to feed pigs at the Stepney City Farm.
Of course, there have been many obstacles. “It’s incredibly difficult to buy milk when you’re small. That was the first challenge to overcome”, she says. There are legal issues too – for instance, for health and safety reasons, she can’t use traditional methods such as leaving the milk out overnight to acidify.
And the milk itself is different. In Mexico, cows are fed a dry corn-based diet; here they graze on wet grass in summer and silage in winter. Explaining how the taste of the milk affects the cheese, Schnepp says: “Milk is a living product, and changes from day to day, season to season. As it’s alive, you have to react to it according to the weather, whether the cow is pregnant and so on. You can learn how to make cheese, but to make it taste like the real thing is a different matter.”
She’s made a lot of effort to achieve the authentic taste through trial and error, and has been rewarded with approval from Mexican chefs and their mums. Respected international cheese judge Carlos Yescas, a keen advocate of Mexican cheeses, gave his stamp of approval during a visit from New York. And last year, queso oaxaca won a silver medal at the British Cheese Awards.
The cheeses are available in a growing number of delis; and you can buy them online from their own or Cool Chile Co’s websites. You can also buy them directly from the dairy by appointment. One place they won’t be available, however, is supermarkets; and neither are food markets her main focus.
Kristen’s aim is to expand cautiously, bring in another cheesemaker and hire interns. She doesn’t do tastings and classes, but is available for team-building events. She loves working with chefs, and plans to link up with food bloggers and get their recipes up on her website.
While starting out, she found a lot of support from other urban cheesemakers and, in turn, is happy to share her knowledge and experience with Londoners interested in making cheese. She lives in Bermondsey, and says she based her business here rather than in the countryside to keep the cost of the distribution down. “There are a lot of exciting things going on here in Peckham”, she enthuses – and, having tasted her exquisitely delicious cheeses, we think Gringa Dairy is somewhere at the top.
By Sejal Sukhadwala
Gringa Dairy, Arch 77, 878 Old Kent Road, SE15 1NQ