A guide to stocking European cheeses

13 May 2024, 07:21 AM
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A guide to stocking European cheeses

Unless they’re steered to a particular country or theme, modern British cheese counters have a distinctly different look and feel from 20, or even 10, years ago.

Back then customers could expect a raft of ‘exotic’ selections drawn largely from dairies and manufacturers across France, jazzed up with a sprinkling from Italy (usually just a Gorgonzola), and backfilled with a few British Cheddars or territorials.

Today many cheesemongers feel a strong obligation to support the ‘new wave’ of makers that have emerged across the UK over the past two decades – from the valleys of Wales, to the craggy pastures of Scotland, and creeks and caves of the West Country.

This is a contemporary food revolution that has put our isles on the cheese map, demonstrating a breadth of skill, passion and heritage pride.

But, many cheesemongers will add, you ignore the classic and up-and-coming European cheeses at your peril!

Alpine cheeses to consider

Dan Williams of Godfrey C Williams & Son says 80% of his counter is British, largely because customers are delighted to find ‘home grown’ counterparts to try. “For example, we now sell more Beauvale than Gorgonzola Dolce, and we do have Roquefort on the counter, but we sell a lot more Mrs Bell’s Blue from Shepherd’s Purse in Yorkshire.”

The 20% of fridge space left, therefore, Dan says, has to reflect the creme de la creme of Europe – cheeses that stand out over and above what we are now able to produce on our own shores. And must have a level of “customer recognition and value, as well as tasting really great”. 

In addition to premium Comte, Gouda and Gruyere, he is increasingly looking to new classics “like Kaltbach – a creamy Alpine cheese. That’s a really good one that’s picked up a customer following with us. And Beemster, an 18-month-old Gouda. That’s a bit like a step up from aged Gouda like Old Amsterdam. People are trying these cheeses, and challenging their own perceptions, and I, personally, like hearing about and discovering new and exciting modern cheeses that challenge the old world.”

Dan is inspired, for his European stocking decisions, by the series of regular themed events the shop holds, focusing for an entire month on a style or part of the world. “It’s a really good way to pitch out different cheeses,” he explains. “I know I’m guilty at home every week of going for the same cheeses from my own fridge. It’s always good to challenge what customers have and let them try something new. We enjoy it too.”

This year the deli will zone in on Spanish, German and Italian cheese, but most recently was very successful in bringing an Alpine flavour to the shop floor.

“I love Alpine cheeses,” says Dan. “We carried a good range already, from Le Gruyere to Fontina and Taleggio, but we wanted to explore cheeses that were not so known, and bring them to our customers.”

Working with specialist London supplier, Jumi, the deli saw a huge amount of interest in these varieties. So much so, in fact, that several of the varieties sampled have been chosen as mainstays in the counter. These include Aarewasser. “It’s a Swiss, Raclette-style cheese, but the point of difference is it has a higher fat content, so it’s more buttery. Then we had Apres Solais, which is a Gruyere style with a bit of crunch and a good depth of sweet and savoury flavour. It’s a really interesting one with herbaceous notes, almost like the fresh, tomato greenery. That sold particularly well. We had a 6kg wheel and sold half of it on a Saturday, and we’re only a small shop!”

The modern must-stock Italian cheeses

France is often the first port of call for mongers expanding their continental collection, but it’s well worth veering over the border into Italy says Francesco Lentini of Gastronomica. “We’ve got big variety across cow’s, sheep’s and goats’ milk!”

The specialist retailer reports huge growth in two particular products – Burrata and Pecorino – as consumers (especially those who’ve bought into the pizza oven craze) seek to bring authenticity to their pizzas, pasta dishes and salads.

Burrata, like nduja sausage, is a particular customer favourite. “And ours is very popular all over the world,” adds Francesco. “Also, buffalo Mozzarella is always selling well, and Pecorino Romana, for the real carbonara. It’s getting famous everywhere.”

Pecorino could be the one to watch in 2024 with more chefs choosing to use it as they replicate the traditional recipes of Sicily, or the regions of Lazio or Tuscany. Bringing a salty, umami flavour to the table, Francesco says, “We’ve been selling a lot of Pecorino since we started in Borough Market 20 years ago. A lot of Pecorino Toscano. And we found this selection of historic white Pecorino, and red wine coloured with tomato, and a black one.”

Occelli and Castelmagno are also catching customers’ eyes, in addition to Italy’s flair for cheese infusions. Francesco lists a variety from Veneto that’s wrapped in tea leaves, a saffron cheese whose sides are freckled with peppercorns, and a Pecorino rippled with truffle.

“Every region of Italy has its own cheeses. It’s a huge selection, and very different from English and French,” he says. “They are so different in taste and texture. I spend a lot of time trying them saying ‘wow, this is good’!”

Spanish cheeses to try

Los OrigenES founder Jesus Llamazares started his business last summer, after 12 years in the UK, pining for the speciality foods of his home country. And he reports customers are loving being able to sample and buy a ‘real taste of Spain’ via his enterprise.

Getting your hands on authentic Spanish food, particularly cheeses, is not easy, Jesus says. It takes time, patience and, vitally, good connections. But if you have all three, you can add some very special, and often rare, products to your counter.

“Spain is not like Italy or France in terms of marketing,” he explains. “We do not have this nature of talking, or coming out of our borders to share what we’ve made. We, of course, share the passion when it comes to our food and our country, but many Spanish companies are not so keen to internationalise.” This means there are still lots of artisan producers to uncover. But you have to pick wisely – not all of them want to take on new customers.

Conversely, however, Jesus says they must be supported, so the artisanal products they make don’t die out, and to ensure tradition isn’t lost.

Last year Jesus went on an epic 3,000km trip across Spain, picking the best producers for Los OrigenES. “When you go to the producer and demonstrate you care for their origins and why they are special, that is how you build the relationships,” he says.

Many of the finest cheeses from his home country are rarely found out of their region or Michelin Star restaurants, as traditional makers don’t often speak English. Having a Spanish speaker, or native Spaniard on your team, then, could prove invaluable if you want to widen your range.

There are more than 150 varieties to discover, mostly derived from sheep’s milk, or blended with cow’s milk. And there’s certainly, Jesus says, a lot to discover beyond Manchego. But choosing the best quality Manchego is a good starting point, being a familiar product with consumers.

“In the UK, in most places, it is not good quality, and it is only three months old. For us in Spain, it goes from 15 days, up to three, six and 12 months. Most brands stop at 12 months, and only a few selected cheeses go beyond this.”

When people are thinking about Manchego, Jesus adds, “it’s often the very soft mild one, or the very hard one, a bit like Parmesan, they are familiar with.”

Also, “Manchego has its own PDO and is only made with sheep’s milk.” Buying inferior Manchego made with a mixture of milks is a common mistake buyers in the UK often make.

He’s excited by new innovation for the cheese, in the form of infused Manchego ‘balls’, which have managed to gain PDO status, and are infused with black garlic or black truffle. “They are very interesting and very unique.” And expensive, he adds. “It’s a new flavour, even for the Spanish.”

Your next step away from Manchego might be Zamorano. “It’s another cheese from the region north of Madrid, where the climate is similar. The brand we bring is one that won a gold medal in the World Cheese Awards in Norway last year. It’s a very powerful cheese. Normally it is cured for 11 months or 12 months. It’s like a Manchego, but more matured.”

Buyers looking for something with a bit more clout and power could look to the Torta Del Casar – a rounded, sheep’s milk cheese weighing in at around 400g, so ideal for grab and go selections. “It’s not soft, but if you get a good brand like ours, you can get it to spread,” Jesus advises. “We recommend keeping it at room temperature for 60 minutes to 90 minutes. 

“When you have a party of four to six people, have it with crackers or some marmalades or jams. It is an amazing one if you like strong cheese. Whenever I open one up, people are buying one…sometimes two!”

Another often unsung hero of the Spanish dairy arena is Cabrales, which is little-known in Britain, but revered and celebrated in its home. “It is made in caves, normally at 1,500 metres, and once or twice a week they turn the cheese to keep the balance.”

Remarkably, the cheesemakers have to travel by foot for the final leg of the journey to the cheese caves, where there is no running water or electricity. Each Cabrales is washed using water drops generated by the caves’ humidity. It is a true labour of love, and not a practice that can be scaled up exponentially.

Therefore, Jesus says, the very best cheeses are hotly fought over. He was delighted, last July, to buy a Cabrales that was later named best in the world in a competition that pits makers against one another. After the competition in Northern Spain, a single wheel of the winning cheese sold for a record-breaking 30,000 Euros.

Typically Cabrales is sold at three, six and 12 months. “Twelve months is very rare. Again, it is difficult to cherry pick the best cheeses to go beyond that point. A 12-month Cabrales is a very strong flavour, so less people will like it. We get three to six months, when it’s a paste, and it’s a really lovely product.”

Jesus thinks the landscape of Spanish cheese is “definitely very interesting”, and he loves seeing customers’ reactions when they try what he’s imported. Their faces “light up” the first time they try a Torta Del Casar, for example. “Then you explain the story, and why it is so good, and they love it. It is very very satisfying.”

Stocking Spanish cheese also, he says, opens up a whole new world when it comes to pairings. These kinds of cheeses open themselves up to matching with deli and farm shops’ collections of gourmet jams and marmalades. And, “I’ve been working with a cheese master in Spain to help design some pairings. She said in Spain they are experimenting with 12-month aged Manchego cheese and watermelon. Watermelon and ham is very common, and this has the same flavours. It makes a lot of sense.”

Another suggestion, which British cheesemongers are starting to explore too, is chocolate and cheese. “She matched three-month aged Manchego with 70% chocolate. Because of the lactic element of the cheese, mixed with the chocolate, it’s like making a milk chocolate. People in Spain like to experiment!”

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