Kappacasein: a Zambian cheese-maker in south London

Bill Oglethorpe founded Kappacasein in 2008, making the freshest cheese, yoghurt and butter possible and selling them from his shop in south London’s Borough Market. He told us all about it…

(This interview was originally published in November 2015)

Bill Oglethorpe, founder of Kappacasein

You were you raised in Zambia, what was your childhood like?
It was a very exciting time during the early years of independence from the UK. My parents were very involved in creating a new country, which was a huge challenge. The climate is amazing being close to the equator.

There was an element of uncertainty, which made it very exciting and anxiety provoking, being a wild and undeveloped country. I spent all my time outdoors playing sports.

And you then moved to Switzerland to study agriculture. Why there, and why that course?
It was through a friend of my father’s who had worked with him in the Western Province near Angola and Namibia for the Paris mission. His family had gone back to Switzerland.

During a visit to my father several years later, he suggested he could organise for me to go to an agricultural school in Neuchatel. After thinking about it for a few weeks I wrote a letter saying I would like to take him up on his offer.

A few weeks later I got a reply saying he had found me a place in a college with a three-year course which would qualify me as a “peasant” – we all found that very amusing. In French, the word for farmer is ‘paysan’ so it was a bad translation, because the two words look and sound similar.

If one has a clear understanding of the two elements of cheese-making, which are acidity and rennet, then one can create any kind of cheese

Why did you decide to move to London?
I had family here and Zambia being part of the Commonwealth made it a natural place to gravitate towards.

Where do you live now and what’s your home like?
I live in a flat in Streatham, which is mostly tidy with a really good kitchen and hi-fi.

Why did you choose to set up in Bermondsey?
It’s due to my connection with Neal’s Yard Dairy. I worked for them for 14 years, starting in Covent Garden then in Borough Market and lastly, in Bermondsey.

Spa Terminus was set up to host food producers in Bermondsey. Neal’s Yard Dairy and Monmouth were instrumental in setting it up so since I know them so well I got involved.

Given the choice, I would be on an alpage [high mountain pasture] so I brought the alpage to a railway arch!

When did you develop an interest in cheese production?
When I was helping a friend set up a goat farm in Provence. That was in 1985. I was interested in baking as well. Then getting a job at Neal’s Yard Dairy boosted my interest.

Where/how did you train?
Making cheese at home. A cheese-making course in France. Making cheese in the Swiss Alps in Etivaz. Spending time making cheese with the suppliers of Neal’s Yard Dairy.

Can you talk us through the cheese-making process?
The cheese-making course in France really clarified the cheese-making process in my mind. If one has a clear understanding of the two elements of cheese-making, which are acidity and rennet, then one can create any kind of cheese.

Rennet-based cheeses like parmesan and gruyere are made in very remote areas and are made to keep for as long as possible. They are dry and elastic and big. One parmesan takes 400 litres of milk to make and can keep for as long as ten years.

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Acid-based cheeses such as fresh goat’s cheese, camembert and brie are made closer to urban areas and need to be consumed within weeks. They are crumbly or runny and small. A 180g goat’s cheese takes one litre of milk to make.

Depending on how you mix the elements of rennet and acid, you can obtain a multitude of outcomes.

You use cow’s milk from an organic farm in Chiddingstone, Kent, that you collect in the morning and turn straight into cheese. Why is it important to have such fresh milk?
By minimising the handling, my aim is to maximise the quality and expression of the milk. Chilling and pasteurising damages the proteins. By using natural processes I also save time and energy.

The starter is added as soon as the milk comes out of the milking parlour at around 34°C. It takes about an hour and a half to get to the dairy by which time it has acidified enough for the rennet to be added.

What cheeses do you make?
Bermondsey Hard Pressed (like gruyere/raclette), Bermondsey Frier (a bit like halloumi), Bis (like reblochon) Spalactic (like a fresh goat’s cheese), ricotta, yoghurt and butter.

Where do you sell them?
From where we make them in Borough, Neal’s Yard Dairy, The Food Assembly and a few delis around London.

How many people work with you at Kappacasein?

On a Saturday after making hundreds of raclettes I don’t really feel like eating cheese in the evening

What does the name mean?
It’s the protein that is key to cheese-making. Casein is a milk protein. For example, albumen casein also makes up the protein in milk but does not coagulate with rennet, it is coagulated with heat and acidity hence ricotta is made from the whey after the curds have been taken out of the whey.

Do you have cheese sandwiches for lunch every day?
At least four days a week.

How much cheese do you eat at home; do you ever feel bored of eating it?
I sometimes forget to take cheese home, which is frustrating. On a Saturday after making hundreds of raclettes I don’t really feel like eating cheese in the evening. I bought a masticating juicer last year to balance my diet a bit!

What are your working hours?
Everyday is different: Monday 7am-4pm, Tuesday 4am-3pm, Wednesday 8am-4pm, Thursday 11am-7pm, Friday off, Saturday 6.30am-3pm and Sunday off.

How do you spend your time off?
For the last year I’ve been cold-water swimming in Tooting Lido and the pond in Hampstead. Reading philosophy, singing in a choir, ashtanga yoga, zazen.

What are the dreams for Kappacasein?
A group of people being able to interact dynamically with each other and the world around us. A small-holding in the mountains.