There is no mistaking what is made at Kappacasein! The wonderful aroma of cheese wafts into your nostrils as soon as you approach the place. But a cheese producer in the midst of urban SE16 seems a little out of place. Not so, when you find out the history and practice of Bill Oglethorpe who runs Kappacasein with a clear passion and dedication that belies his gentle nature. I went to meet Bill in his centre of operations, two railway arches just off Old Jamaica Road and as we sat down to talk I asked him about how he got into cheese making.
“…We dispose of the whey to Surrey Docks Farm as pig feed…”
“I was born of South African parents who moved to Zambia’s copperbelt,” he explained. “By the time I left Zambia for Switzerland in 1980, independence had become hollow. I came to Europe to study agriculture and after the course and lots of cooking, I helped a friend set up a great little farm in Provence. We were producing too much milk and so started making cheese to add value and help it last longer. In 1990, I got a job working for Neal’s Yard Dairy selling cheese in Covent Garden. Whilst I was with them, I learnt all about maturing cheese and went on cheese-making courses. I dealt with customer feedback so got to know what went well and not so well with cheese consumption.”
“I began Kappacasein at Borough Market in 2001. I sell toasted cheese sandwiches and Swiss raclette to customers three days a week whilst I was then also working at Neal’s Yard Dairy. As the business took off and Neal’s Yard Dairy moved from Borough Market to their new location in Spa Terminus, I moved with them about five years ago and set up in a pair of nearby arches. I had to completely gut and renovate them for cheese-making as the hygiene needed is demanding. I built the dairy, had new drains installed and created my very own store for maturing the cheese. I kept the hot food at Borough Market going and that continued to bring in a regular income whilst I got set up.”
“…pick up the milk at 05:00 still warm from the cow…”
So tell me about the process of making cheese. How do you go about it here?
“Well, here I make eight different cheeses as well as yoghurt, butter and ricotta which are really side-products for us. Each day we are making cheese, I set off from home in Streatham to pick up the milk at 05:00 still warm from the cow. We get all our milk from the Commonwork Organic Farm – a social enterprise – in Chiddingstone near Sevenoaks in Kent. You can see some of our cows and process of making Bermondsey Frier on YouTube here. Our van can carry 22 churns each of 30 litres and before we move off, I always add the lactic cultures that help the milk ripen on the journey to the Bermondsey dairy. Once I get there, we skim 10% of the total volume of milk leaving 4% cream, which is just right for cheese-making. We get about 30 litres of cream in total which makes about 13kg butter. 17 litres of buttermilk is another bonus. We put all that day’s remaining milk in our cheese vat, heat it carefully and make a judgement about when to add the rennet to create the junket. This process of coagulation forms the famous curds and whey.”
“…[we] started making cheese to add value and help it last longer…”
“Once the curd is ready, we cut up the junket and separate the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid). The whey is also skimmed before going to Surrey Docks Farm as pig feed but then we begin to form the cheese from the curds. Depending on the sort of cheese we are making we mould, press and ripen the cheese using the natural processes inherent in our ingredients. Depending on the amount of rennet and the lactic cultures we add, we can make our hard or soft cheeses. The method we use to prepare the cheese depends on its size; a smaller cheese has more surface area and so the ripening happens mostly at the surface. We store some of our cheese for up to eighteen months in a our own cheese store to bring out the flavours and texture we want.”
Where will you go from here? What are your plans for the future?
“We’ve grown to twelve staff now with about four of those full-time. That makes it possible for us to sell the toasted sandwiches and raclette at Borough Market Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. We have to stock up here at the dairy and then transport all the fresh goods by cargo bike to the Market. We have three trolleys there that make the stall work and once we have finished, all the cooking equipment has to be brought back to be cleaned and sterilised here. I have recently invested in a double-sized copper vat of 660ltrs that allows us to make cheese on Tuesday for the whole week. It’s much more efficient and reduces the costs of cheese-making considerably. In the longer term, I’d like to get some fixed premises that would allow us serve to cooked food to the public. Being part of the food community in the Spa Terminus arches gives me lots of friends and support from others in the food trade and because Monmouth and Neal’s Yard own it all, we have experienced landlords too. SE16 is a great place to be making cheese!”
Bill Oglethorpe can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org