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Blessed are the cheesemakers: Bermondsey Hard Pressed

Clare Finney tells the story behind an Alpine-style, Bermondsey-made cow’s milk cheese from Kappacasein


“I suppose the name is a bit of a pun,” Bill Oglethorpe grins, “on me being hard pressed to make cheese in Bermondsey.” It’s not a feat to be sniffed at, for all that Bill’s cheese is deeply aromatic. Though there are at least a handful of cheesemakers based in London today, back when Bill set up Kappacasein in a converted railway arch in Bermondsey in 2000, he was something of a pioneer.

Bermondsey Hard Pressed was the first cheese he made, using a 100-year-old copper vat he brought over from Switzerland. A hard, alpine-style cheese modelled on L’Etivaz (Bill spent months working with veteran cheesemakers in the eponymous town before establishing Kappacasein), its long maturation time of 12 to 18 months – ”though I do get impatient sometimes, at 11 months,” he confesses – makes it well suited to the low, steady temperatures of the arch: even if “an alpage in the mountains in June, with a pasture full of wild flowers that have never been cultivated, would really be the ideal”.

Still, the arch was here, and it was available. What’s more, being in London Bill’s cheese are but a 10-minute bike ride away from his point of sale. He has his own retail stall at the Market, so he can sell his cheeses as well as melt them over potatoes and sourdough toast at his famous street food joint on Stoney Street. Where L’Etivaz was traditionally made to keep for a long time and be transported over long distances, Bill has no such problem. Nevertheless, he insists on staying as true to the spirit of alpine cheese as it is possible to do within the sprawling urban environs of SE1.

“In the Alps, of course, the cheesemakers go from one room, the milking parlour, to the next, the dairy,” he says, “but there is still a wait time to allow the milk to mature.” Here in London, this essential ‘wait time’ takes place not in stasis, but in the back of Bill’s specially adapted van. “We put the starter in when we collect the milk from the farm in Kent,” he says. “The milk is still warm from the cow, so the ripening takes place on the way back to Bermondsey. By the time it gets here, it’s ready.” A little bit of heat, to bring it up to 33C, some activated calves’ rennet, and “the acidification can start”.

Hard pressed isn’t just a pun, it is also a classification of cheese. “You have un-pressed – cheeses that are drained – semi-pressed, and hard-pressed cheeses.” By pressing and heating, he continues, you reduce the percentage of moisture in the cheese. “That means it can age for longer,” Bill explains, “because it is drier and more stable.” The press Kappacasein uses – a big, heavy thing, also hailing from Etivaz – is a hard taskmaster, as Bill has come to realise increasingly. “We’ve been making some of our wheels too small, and as a result I think we were over-pressing. The system is built for big cheeses, so we’ve started making ours bigger, so they can withstand the weight and reach the right texture.”

Another change Bill is instigating this year, inspired by L’Etivaz, is to only make his Bermondsey Hard Pressed in summer. “In Etivaz the cheese is made between May and October, when all of the herds are grazing on the wild, uncultivated pastures of the mountain side.” There are no mountains at Commonwork Organic Farms in Kent of course, but there are pastures with wild grasses, and for as long as is possible the cows are grazed outdoors. “The taste of the milk, and the cheese, is so much better for it,” says Bill. “I’ve been reading a lot about Buddhism recently, and one of their key principles is that change happens all the time and one should embrace it.” How better to put this philosophy into practise than to work with the seasons to further refine what is already the ultimate expression of positive change: aged, alpine-style, Bermondsey-made cheese.