Standard bearers: Kappacasein

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Kappacasein

Image: Joseph Fox

“I suppose,” says Bill Oglethorpe ponderously over the low hum of activity muted by cheese churns and ageing rooms, “it’s prioritising making something interesting over making money. Though that helps,” he smiles. “I find it interesting that the movement began as a reaction against fast food.”

Globalisation, centralisation, the homogenisation of food are the forces against which Carlos Petrinj pushed in setting up his Slow Food foundation—and which producers like Bill, whose raclettes and melted cheese sandwiches at Kappacasein are responsible for some of the longest queues in Borough Market, counter every day with their methods and values.

He learnt his art high in the alpine pastures, where cheese has been made for centuries according to the techniques which today, in his stern, grey Victorian railway arch in Bermondsey, he continues to practice. His copper vat, open fire and method of lifting the curds out with cloth all has its roots in this Swiss alpage and the cheesemakers who, he says, have been doing this for more than 300 years.

“I like the elemental side of it: the cow, the wood fire, the mountain. That closeness that appeals to me, because a lot of processes these days are separate from us. That’s why I go to the farmer to the source of the milk, and collect it while it’s still warm. It would be easier to have it delivered, but it takes away the connection. I think the relationship between me and the farmer, and me and my customers, has value.” Of this his many regulars alone are proof.

Flora and bacteria
Bill’s milk is unpasteurised: that is, not subject to heat treatment that kills all bacteria (and as the milk is collected hygienically, that’s just good bacteria) and denatures proteins, rendering the rennet necessary for making cheese less effective. “Raw milk has its own flora and bacteria which is unique to where it comes from. Pasteurised milk is essentially dead. You have to make a lot of corrections to make it into cheese, but with raw milk you just work with what’s there.”

His dairy is spotless, but it is not sterile. “There’s an important difference between sterile and hygienic,” he points out. If the environment was sterile, there would be no bacteria whatsoever—the sea bacteria Bill relies on to create that distinctive sunset-pink rind we associate with Kappacesein would not be present. “The rind occurs naturally when I wash the cheese in brine, because sea bacteria are in the air.”

As is traditional, Bill makes his own starter, using fermented milk from the farm. “I wanted something more holistic—connected to the farm and to here.” The farm he collects from in Kent is organic, the cows pasture or silage-fed, and the starter added to the milk when it’s still warm, the moment he picks it up.

By understanding the less predictable elements—the weather, the person who milked the cow, bacteria—and working in harmony with them, he knows each cheese will be unique. “You can either get rid of the unpredictable stuff, or work with it,” he says. “It is a fine balance. Of course we need some consistency, but too much consistency is exactly what is wrong with industrial cheese.”

Luminescent quality
Bill’s signature cheese takes time to make. His ricotta and formaggio cotto are speedy, but each wheel of Bermondsey Hard Pressed is aged for 12 to 15 months, throughout which time it’s brine-washed regularly. As it gets older, so it gets pinker, acquiring an almost luminescent quality in the dim, train-rattled ageing rooms until it is deemed raclette-ready.

I leave as Bill is loading his cargo bike with the chosen wheels and blocks of formaggio cotto: surprised, at first, that he cycles to Borough Market, then surprised I was surprised by it. It’s more sustainable and time-honoured than driving and, provided he takes the necessary precautions, rendered more interesting by the unpredictable elements—not less safe.