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The big betty careers Q&A: we chat to a cheesemaker!

The end of school is nigh, and all of a sudden you feel like you’ve got 100 decisions to make. What do I want to do with my life? Do I want to go to college, or uni, or do I want to get stuck straight into work? It’s easy to feel lost when you don’t know what you want to do, or how to get there.

But while you have literally your whole life to make up your mind, a little bit of good advice can go a long way. So with that in mind, in a series of interviews, we’re speaking to women who’ve ‘made it’, and asking their advice on how to follow in their footsteps.

Next up, Kristen Scnepp, who makes award-winning Mexican-style cheese in her micro dairy in South London.

Describe your typical day

When I was starting out I was up at 4am, I’d go to the farm and get some milk, come back, put the milk in a vat and start to make the cheese. I would do a lot of cleaning and taking readings of the milk. The next stage is to process the curd, which can take a long time! Today we made 100 kilos of cheese, so that’s 100 kilos of curd that needs to be churned by hand, put into molds by hand, packed up and put in the chiller and labelled. It’s a lot like baking, it’s a long day—in the business world you can decide when a powerpoint is done. With cheese, it decides when it’s done.

What’s the best part of the job?

For me it was all about starting my own business and doing something I’m passionate about. I think the best part is living life on your own terms and doing something that’s creative and different. I’ve done so much better than I ever thought I would; we’re growing dramatically and that is incredibly satisfying.

Are there any bad points?

There’s always something, with any job. It is incredibly physically demanding, like I said—it can be knackering. And when it is your own business it can be difficult to set the goals for success. It’s always easier to focus on the bad things that happen, so it’s important to stop and go yeah, this is great. And that’s really hard to do. You have to pat yourself on the back.

The Big Question: uni or no uni?

I am self-taught mainly, but I do have some experience and have taken a class on professional cheesemaking at the School of Artisan Food. Most people who want to become a cheesemaker the way I did (rather than beginning at a farm) start at home. High Weald Dairy in Sussex do a course, as do Wildes Cheese in Tottenham. Making cheese involves a lot of science! We hire a lot of university graduates, many of whom have an interest in business, food, or food science, or even social justice, sustainability. There’s also the decision as to whether you want to do it for somebody else or start your own business.

What about A levels?

To be honest you could do something sciency, or you could do computer programming, it really doesn’t matter. People come from all different directions—I think the number one thing you need is passion. Really what the person needs to be willing to do is get their hands dirty. If you want to sit at a desk this is not for you, not at all. It’s very demanding and even though you’re a cheesemaker, a lot of it is about cleaning. You spend a lot of time talking about hygiene. It’s certainly not glamorous!

Are you a cheese addict?

I love my own cheeses like children, so can’t pick a favourite! But otherwise, I would have to say Epoisses, which is an extremely soft cow’s milk cheese from the town of the same name in France. And I do still eat cheese all the time—my wife gets very cross because we are constantly running out at home!

If you were to give one piece of advice to your 14-year-old self, what would it be?

I have asked myself whether I would do something different because I am definitely of a generation where I did what I was ‘supposed’ to do, but I don’t really regret any of it. I would, however, tell myself to be more courageous.

@EllieCostigan

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Image: Katie Edmunds

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