How to become a professional cheesemaker

How to become a professional cheesemaker

by Tom Shingler 25 July 2016

Tom Shingler talks to Philip Wilton of Wildes Cheese to find out how easy it is to give up the day job and become a professional cheese producer.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler is the editor of Great British Chefs.

We all hear stories of people who have had enough of the rat race, tire of nine-to-five office jobs or are just fed up with their current career and want to do something they love. But while it’s easy to daydream about, packing in the day job to work in an entirely new industry is a pretty nerve-racking life choice.

As a nation of foodies, working in food and drink is naturally one of the most wished-for career changes in the country. After a lifetime of eating his way around the cheese shops of Britain, Philip Wilton decided the life of a management consultant wasn’t for him, and he now runs the award-winning Wildes Cheese in Tottenham.

‘I just wanted to do something where you have something real at the end of all your work,’ says Philip. ‘I basically put myself in the firing line and was made redundant, and was lucky enough to get some money. Me and my partner decided to start up a cheese company and were wondering about where in the countryside to relocate to from Tottenham. During this I had started learning how to make cheese at Reaseheath College up near Nantwich, and was getting to grips with the science behind the process.’

Made in London

One thing that separates Wildes Cheese from other cheesemakers is its location. ‘We had gone to Wales to see my partner’s mother just as the London riots in 2011 were happening,’ says Philip. ‘When we got back we saw the local community really come together and help clean up, and decided we wanted to be part of it. You can do anything you like in London – so why shouldn’t you be able to make cheese?’

Wildes Cheese was born in June 2012, in a small industrial unit in Tottenham. Not the most obvious place for an artisan cheesemaker to set up shop, and Philip ran into his fair share of problems from day one. ‘There aren’t any barns in Tottenham that you can rent for £1 a week, so we had to rent a unit on an industrial state instead,’ he explains. ‘As with everywhere in London, it isn’t cheap, so we decided from the beginning that we couldn’t afford to mature cheeses for years – we leave that to the country boys. I bet my monthly rate bill is higher than a lot of their annual ones!

‘A lot of cheesemakers make one or two cheeses and sell them all over the country, but we’ve taken a different approach,’ continues Philip. ‘Our market is London, so we only sell our cheeses in the city, but we have a whole range of different varieties.’

Philip and Keith
Philip (left) founded Wildes Cheese with his partner Keith in 2012
He attended Reaseheath College near Nantwich to learn the science behind professional cheesemaking – but the art of it came a few years later

Art and science

Once the business model was sorted, Philip got on with the most important part of owning a cheesemaking business – actually making the cheese. But things didn’t go to plan. ‘The first cheese we made was horrible,’ he says. ‘We called it Burt, and I don’t know what went wrong, but every time I have a cheese-related disaster it’s like I can smell that cheese – a bit like when you get very drunk on something like Pernod when you’re young and you can’t bring yourself to drink it ever again. I was incredibly worried – we’d just taken on a unit, bought all our kit and paid the setup costs. The problem comes in scaling up; anybody can make one great cupcake in their kitchen at home, but try making 1,000 of them all perfect and beautiful – it was the same with Burt. But it was part of the learning curve and very good for us.’

Shaken by the failure of his first cheese as a professional, Philip locked the door to his unit and went on holiday. But when he returned he had a newfound determination to succeed. ‘My time at Reaseheath College had taught me the science of making cheese, but not the art of it,’ he explains. ‘Because we’re not a ‘push button’ cheesemaker, that took a little while to get the hang of. We handle the curds and everything is handmade – it takes time to get the hang of that. But over the last few years we’ve become much more competent.

‘We first went to market in November 2012 with a cheese called the Londonshire – a really gooey white mould cheese,’ continues Philip. ‘I remember it well because it was the first time someone gave me money for product. Anybody will be your cheese sampler, but the real test of quality is when a complete stranger will give you money for a product and then come back for more. That’s the best feedback you can get.’

My time at Reaseheath College had taught me the science of making cheese, but not the art of it. Because we’re not a ‘push button’ cheesemaker, that took a little while to get the hang of.

Philip Wilton