Tell us a bit about you
My name is Kristen, I am American and make a range of handmade, award winning, traditional Mexican cheeses in
an urban dairy located in a railway arch in Peckham, South East London. I grew up in the Central Valley in California, in a largely agricultural community, where the dominant population are immigrant Mexicans. When living in California, I had the opportunity to really explore Mexico and see it not through the lens of an American, but more as a Mexican and now, funnily enough, I make a range of Mexican cheeses.
I had a corporate career and my background was in marketing strategy and business development in financial services. My father was a gourmet food broker and distributor, and I developed a passion for the food business at an early age.
I had a great career, I was running consumer strategy for Lloyds of London, when I hit 43 and I realised that I wanted to do something else. It wasn’t until I really realised I could make cheese, that I discovered that this was what I wanted to.
If I were not making cheese, I would be travelling the world, skiving off, but I am a cheese maker; if you come from a family farm and you came to cheese making to add value to your milk, that is one route, but for the rest of us, we did not get into the business with huge expectations of glory and gold, it is definitely, a passion.
What do you make and why?
Coming from a product development and innovation background, I am pretty good at spotting opportunities. To me, it was becoming clear that there was a market opportunity to develop and make Mexican cheeses, and more importantly, I had a real passion about it. I could not source good Mexican cheeses in London very easily, so I thought, if I can’t get hold of it, maybe I should make it myself.
The decision to do this was underlined by an assessment of the market place and a belief in the market opportunity. You can be passionate about something, but it also has to have legs. I believed this had a good chance of success. Everything is about time and place and it was the right time to have that conversation with myself.
I make 4 different cheeses now, all from pasteurised cow’s milk using animal rennet.
Like every country, there are hundreds of expressions of cheeses, and as you know, you can only make a few things well. We make primarily cooking cheeses; I wanted to make cheeses that fit the culinary needs of chefs, as flexibly as possible, but also remain authentic to the products.
Queso Fresco is a little bit like a feta. It was introduced to Mexico from Burgos, Spain and is a slightly firm, somewhat wet, fresh and very mild, white cheese used to crumble, often used in enchiladas and taquitos.
We make a Queso Chihuahua, a cheese introduced to Mexico by Mennonite communities (and sometimes still called queso menonita). It is a semi-firm, very slightly tangy cow’s milk cheese. The cheese is designed to melt smoothly without a lot of oil separation or clumping (as with cheddar). It makes a very good toasted sandwich and is commonly used in burritos and nachos (the best “substitute” for Monterey Jack).
Queso Oaxaca is our third cheese and is a pasta filata style of cheese: soft, pulled curd string cheese and is
believed to have been introduced to Mexico by Italian immigrants in the 1950’s. We make it in ribbons, mainly for restaurants and also in balls for retail. It is a popular melting cheese, commonly used in quesadillas and other melted cheese dishes.
We have recently launched a new hard cheese called Queso Cotija. The name comes from the town of Cotija in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It is firm, very salty, does not easily melt and is known as “Mexican parmesan”, a little like Pecorino Romano and is used grated as a garnish on salads, soups, etc.
You always have to monitor authenticity, and this has been our greatest challenge; we won’t put something out on the market if it is not authentic.
I think it is really important to think about what you make, you have to believe in everything you make. For us, there are two important aspects: firstly, are these cheeses well crafted, if someone eats this and they don’t know much about Mexican cheeses, would it still be a good product? If they are Mexican cheese people, would they view my products as authentic? These are the two lenses that we look at everything through, which is fun.
The four different types of cheese that we make will provide a Mexican chef with all the cheese that they need: a Queso Fresco, a young, fresh cheese, we have two melters: the Queso Chihuahua, which is like a young cheddar, but without the gloop and the Queso Oaxaca which also has a melting function with a slightly different expression. And finally, we have a new hard grating cheese in our Queso Cotija.
We make to fulfil a market need. The Oaxaca and Chihuahua share a heritage, but I would not go off and make a goat cheese or something that has a soft rind. To do this would impact the quality of the family line, we don’t have enough attention for more. This is good! It creates discipline; it is easy to say yes we can make this (a new cheese) because it would be fun, but we have to say no.
Tell us about your dairy: where is it, what do you have in it, favourite bits of kit, things you would like to change (if anything) or something that would make your life better/easier
We have a pasteuriser, a 2,000 litre vat, curd mill, a giant bain-marie for the Oaxaca, a big table, cold room, moulds, storage etc. We sold our original vat because we did not have room to store it for future use.
Our dairy is tiny, we have 82 sq m in total and with our new 2,000 litre vat, we are out of space. It would be nice to have another piece of kit to help with the Oaxaca because we can’t make enough of it, but we are out of space!
I think it is time to move, to relocate to larger premises. In the beginning, it made sense to bring the milk
to us, because we needed to be close to our customers. Now that we have developed and grown, it makes greater sense for us to move closer to our source of milk, so we are currently looking around for new premises, to see if we can find buildings near a farmer; we are open to a variety of outcomes.
That is the necessary next step for us in next 12 -18 months, as long as the country does not fall into the ocean! I think everyone in the UK is holding their breath, no matter what business they are in, it is tough having a small business in these times. We are fortunate to be in an amazing community, I feel really lucky to be in the industry we are in, where you can pick up the phone when times are good or bad and there is someone there to talk to and help if needs be.
How has the dairy industry changed since you started making cheese and what advice would you give to anyone thinking of being a cheesemaker?
People come to our doors all the time to ask for help and advice, I think people need to be very clear about what they want to accomplish. After what happened with Erringtons and the ensuing over-the-top crack down on processing raw milk, this has led us to no longer make a raw cheese.
Initially, our Oaxaca was a raw milk cheese and we were very excited to make it, it was a really excellent expression of raw milk. Because everyone had a freak out, and what they were trying to make us do, to certify the milk, was beyond reasonable oversight and it was not something we were prepared to do.
I am super angry about that, particularly given that everything that has come to pass with Errigntons. The current thinking is a bit ridiculous and no other industry is being held to that standard and it seems we are taking that lying down; I think it is crazy and makes life very difficult.
The other thing we have to be conscious about is Brexit, which could be good for some, bad for others. Some people are looking to source more domestic cheeses, but we still have our own supply chain to deal with, so we have a lot of concerns,
To someone coming into the industry, if it is hobby, go for it. If commercial, you need to be clear about what you want to make, where to sell it and who is going to buy it. It is not a romantic notion, it is a business. People can really underestimate how much cleaning there is, how much work is involved, and that it is not going to meet everybody’s needs. It is a great business to be in, but you can’t go into it with a false sense of what it is and what it isn’t.
I also think that people focus a lot on the cheese side, you make the cheese, you have to sell it, which means you have to talk to people. If you don’t have a way to get it to the market, how is that going to work out? You have just to be realistic.
Where can we find your cheese?
We primarily sell to restaurants, that is my passion and our primary business and we also retail. We serve over 25 Mexican restaurants/restaurant groups including Santo Remedio, El Pastor, Mestizo, Wahaca, Breddos, Lupita and Casa Morita. We also serve Latin restaurants such as Ceviche and MNKY-HSE as well as eateries that just find our cheeses interesting, such as Honey & Co and The Cheese Bar. We also proudly support a number of food trucks & pop ups such as the Cheese Truck. Our products are available for retail sale in small independent delis and cheese shops and Whole Foods Markets in London.
Favourite cheese making music?
I like classical music, and Jeremy, who joined me a long time ago does not, so when Jeremy is not around, I play opera music. I am happy to listen to any opera. By contrast, my good friend Phil at Wildes tells me that he is all about the disco!
Name: Kristen, Gringa Dairy
Thank you, Kristen for your time; really great to speak to a fellow cheese maker, fascinating insights into what you do and why, thank you. I really admire your planning and focus, and the research you undertook to identify your cheesey direction and good advice too.