Simona Di Vietri tells Victoria Stewart why she quit investment banking to make cheese
If you’ve ever watched someone stretch out fresh mozzarella you’ll know how transfixing a spectacle it is. Seeing someone use their hands to wind this Italian cheese into knots, mould it into little animal shapes or tear it into strips and add fresh cream to make burrata is a lovely thing.
And just five minutes’ walk from North Acton station, opposite an imposingly ugly Holiday Inn hotel, is where Simona Di Vietri, founder of La Latteria, runs her new London mozzarella business, which started trading in February 2016. Walking in, she hands me a hairnet, blue shoe covers and a temporary lab coat, before taking me next door to watch her chief cheesemaker Michele Di Bori at work as he pulls huge chunks of the stuff out of its milky water bath. Within two minutes the diminuative powerhouse that is Di Vietri is talking at hare’s pace about how it is made, beginning simply with milk picked up each morning from a dairy in Surrey, to why some of London’s top chefs are buying it. She also lets me taste some, and it’s superb – fresher, milkier and springier than any mozzarella I’ve eaten before. Here Di Vietri tells me why she quit investment banking to make cheese.
How many products do you now make?
We have 10 basic, but really 17 in total. It all starts with the same thing and then we roll it or add things to it because we do things in addition to the traditional product. We have the Campagnola and Bocconcini balls, the Nodini knots, the little Ciliegine with and without gorgonzola, the Treccia (rope-shape), Burrata, Burratina, Stracciatella, Scamorza, and Ricotta, to name most of them.
Why did you start the business?
I used to work in investment banking and then [my husband and I] moved to Dubai, and then back to London. Then [I was travelling to offices] around the world but I had two young kids under five, and I realised that I didn’t come to London to live on a plane. But also I always had this idea in the back of my mind because my cousin runs a mozzarella business in Milan and he’s been asking me for years to do it too and it had got stuck in my head. Finally one year ago, I closed everything, quit [and wrote a business plan] and now I have a wardrobe of suits and heels that have not been touched since.
Had you ever made mozzarella before this?
I’d never made mozzarella. I hate a lot of it! When I left Italy I stopped eating mozzarella – I come from a small town in Italy where I used to go and buy it from the old shops [and it’s just so fresh] there. Some people told me I was crazy – I literally scrapped 17 years of my work and I started again. I didn’t know anything about production, cheese, milk, anything. My cousin was helping me of course, and I used to spend weeks in his lab in Milan asking questions, but at the end of the day it’s down to me. I spend my nights researching, understanding and talking to people.
Where do you sell your products?
Only a few, as we’ve just started, but we have Michelin-starred restaurants including Dabbous and Hibiscus, as well as Social Eating House, Granger & Co.
How many products have you sold since you started?
Well since day 1, we have worked with probably 20,000 litres of milk.
What has the reaction been like?
People love it. At a food fair yesterday, we sold out of everything after everyone tried samples. Some of the chefs make things with it, or they like the small balls as you can use them for decoration too. We don’t put salt in our ricotta – that way you can do sweets, too.
How is it made?
We have two cheesemakers including Michele here who has been doing this for 15 years since he was 15; for most of these guys, it’s been in their family and they don’t teach you, it’s a way of life. Usually they close the door [during production] as it’s a secret. Anyway we pick the milk up ourselves from Surrey every morning. It goes into the milk refrigerator, gets pasteurised, which is quite quick, and it needs to coagulate for up to 35 minutes, where the curd separates from the whey. These get drained and then the big chunks, in order to soften up and stretch and create structure, go into boiling water and turn into a dome shape, which is easier to work with. And that’s the basic form of the product, for the mozzarella, the burrata, the straciatella, and so on, And then you choose what shape you want (braids, or balls, or knots). Once it’s made that day, we send it out while it’s fresh – we don’t keep anything on-site. We have an expiry date of five days including production, but we want people to eat it as early as possible – and it’s a totally different texture to anything you buy in the supermarket. It’s springy, for example, which is a sign of its freshness.
Was it important to have a London business?
It happened beacuse I’m here, but I think London is ready to appreciate it. When my husband lived here 25 years ago, the city was not what it is today in terms of food quality. I think London is the perfect entry point to start, and also from a business perspective I had to find the most concentrated market. I would move out if we get bigger.
Where do the ingredients come from? Are any from London?
We have milk from Surrey, rennet, and salt from Volterra in Italy. This milk works perfectly and is exactly the same as the one my cousin uses in Milan in the sense that it’s the same breed of cow (Holstein Friesian), and the same fat content, but the milk is completely different. It lasts longer, and it tastes amazing. Anything that happens to the animal is reflected in the milk; they’re out more often, the weather is cooler, they eat more grass, they are not stuck in barns most of the time, and it makes a difference.
What’s it like running a business in London?
Well the regulations are totally different to Italy’s so I had re-learn everything, and re-adjust everything. I had to re-design the system, the boiler, to fit with here. But I was happy to do it because I have a passion for it. I come from a militant background, and I’m used to working 20 hours, but it’s not easy.
Do you still eat your products on a regular basis?
Oh, yeah. And my daughter would eat mozzarella for lunch, breakfast, and dinner if she could. If you stretch it like playdough, you can turn it into penguins and pigs, and kids love it.
Do you still have time to eat out for pleasure, or is it all work related now?
I spend a lot of time in Notting Hill where I live because I’m tired, but I also like trying Italian restaurants to see what they’re doing. It’s market research really. But everything I do, pleasure or not, ends up being about cheese now – I always end up chatting in the kitchen with the chef!
Can you describe the life of a London mozzarella maker?
I don’t have a typical day. The only thing that is common in my life currently is that I get up in the morning with a plan and then plan gets turned up within an hour. Every single day! Today I thought I was going to do all sorts of things but then the delivery guy came to say the scooter broke down so I’m going to do it all instead…
Which other London producers you admire?
I have met someone who apparently has a lab doing something similar in Battersea. They have a pizza chain and they produce for themselves. I haven’t come across many others. We’re starting up, so we’re still learning.
This article was originally published in Evening Standard