Cedar Lewisohn continues his journey into the art and food crossover in Bermondsey, and finds that, when it comes to cheese, its a feta-accompli.
It’s 8am on a drizzly Tuesday in London. I’m at Bermondsey tube station. No, I’m not here to write a report on the latest South London commuter trends, I’m here for the love of cheese, specifically a cheese workshop called This is Not Cheese, It’s Dynamite being staged as part of The Delfina Foundation’s The Politics of Food exhibition – the brainchild of artist collective Standard Thinking (aka Javier Rodriguez and Lise Hovesen).
As I’m waiting in the station’s ticket hall, I notice a few other arty types lurking in the shadows, who I assume are also here for the cheese. Eventually someone arrives with Delfina tote bag, and the cheese freaks real themselves. There are about ten of us in total as we walk the short distance to the Kappacasein Dairy. This is the home of award-winning cheese maker William Oglethorpe, whose cheese have something of a cult status, as do his world-renowned toasted cheese sandwiches. The Kappacasein Dairy produces five types of cheese: Bermondsey Hardpressed; Bermondsey Friar; Bermondsey Red, Spa Lactic and Ricotta. Inside the dairy, it feels a bit like stepping into the past, perhaps onto the set of Heidi, but at the same time slightly futuristic, with equipment standing in a bright, laboratory-like room which can be viewed through a large window. If there had been a cheese-making scene in 2001, A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick would have filmed it here. I’m particularly taken with a Giorgio Morandi-esque row of silver-grey milk churns.
Anyway, enough with the arty navel gazing- we’ve got cheese to make. Soon, about 300 litres of uber-fresh milk arrives from a farm in Kent. The majority goes into a 100-year old Swiss copper vat and starts to do its churning thing. This gives us some free ‘getting to know you’ time. I ask Javier from Standard Thinking why they organised the event in the first place. Over a glass of delicious Kentish milk, he tells me: “The cheese workshop was an excellent opportunity to get our hands dirty in making a real thing, rather than philosophising about it. Artists should be more proactive in making useful and tangible matter.”
This attitude certainly gets my vote; quality cheese, not speculative realism. But I’m still not sure how exactly this event is related to art. Maybe it doesn’t matter? Javier explains: “Culture-making and art-making are two inseparable activities. Food is fundamental part of our culture, even though the contemporary mind tends to forget this.”
We get back to the thickening milk in the vat. At some stage I think something called a starter or rennet was added to this mix. And I think, at some stage, the milk is due to ‘split’; this is when the liquid mixture starts to solidify and is cut up into bits with a large cheese ‘harp-cutter’.
Then, the solid parts (curds) and watery liquid (whey) are passed through cheesecloth. This leaves the curd- which is placed into moulds, weighted down and compressed several times (yes, these are the very same curds and whey that kept Little Miss Muffet occupied). Essentially, we now have cheese. It will be put into store, turned and washed with salty brine a couple of times a week for about eight months, at which point a lovely Bermondsey Hardpressed will be ready for consumption. Luckily, there is some available that was made earlier, and we happily tuck into it for lunch.
One of the artists in the group asks if its true that cheese can affect your dreams. The cheese buffs around me all concur that this is face, with different cheeses having wildly differing effects. So, if it’s a late night snack you are after, go easy on that gorgonzola.