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The history of blue cheese is long and illustrious. Newly unearthed research in Italy has revealed that Iron Age people living 2,700 years ago dined on blue cheese containing Penicillium roqueforti, and today, consumers can find that same fungal species in the Stilton on their cheeseboard.
Despite the Marmite-like reputation of blue cheese, its passionate promoters are many, and the UK itself is home to cheeses that sit pride of place on the global stage. But it’s not only the long traditions that make Britain’s blue cheese scene one to watch. “We have our classic Stilton which is a wonderful blue cheese, steeped in tradition, and then we also have this amazing array of innovation and creativity in blue cheeses which has sprung up over the last 25 years,” explains Caroline Bell of cheesemaker Shepherds Purse. “When we began making Yorkshire Blue and Mrs Bell’s Blue back in 1994, we were the only blue cheesemaker in Yorkshire, and now there are at least four or five of us. The UK milk field is so rich, too, that the blue cheese, as with our other speciality cheeses, reflect that quality.”
Variety and consistency are key to the superb quality of Britain’s blue cheeses. “The variety of blue cheese available and the consistent quality from the UK is what makes it special,” says Owen Davies, who runs Welsh cheese shop Tŷ Caws. “We can now buy British Gorgonzola-style cheeses through to Ewes’ milk Roquefort-style cheeses – this ensures the UK customer needs to look no further.”
Baron Robert Pouget, the creator of Oxford Blue, tells Speciality Food that consistency has been key to his success. “We have established a brand – the Oxford Blue Cheese brand – and the consistency of quality and supply, which means that we have a following,” he says. “If your cheese has a reputation for being really consistent and dependable, then people will buy it. And that’s a reputation you get over years and years and years,” he says.
Stilton, which dates back to the early 18th century, has had many years to build up a strong reputation – and with it a European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, which it has held since 1996. Bill Mathieson, who joined farmer-owned Stilton maker Long Clawson Dairy in 2021, said every batch of Stilton is held to high standards through a traceable cheesemaking process. “We deliver, consistently, the highest standard of cheese that is there in terms of Stilton.”
With both traditional favourites and newcomers to enjoy, the great variety of blue cheeses available in the UK today means there is plenty of choice for retailers looking to refresh their stock. But Robert warns that the huge growth in numbers of blue cheeses on the market will inevitably lead to tough competition. “In 1995, when I came back from France and started Oxford Blue Cheese, there was only Stilton, Blue Shropshire and one or two others on the scene. We were the first to try and break the mould and come up with a cheese that wasn’t a Stilton type. But since then, a plethora of new blue cheeses have come up. The problem is that there’s going to be too many blue cheeses,” he says. However, he believes the outlook for blue cheese is strong, as there is a growing market for it in the UK and it remains a must-have on cheeseboards.
It is little wonder that more cheesemakers are getting involved with the highly experimental and creative process of making blue cheese. “Blue cheese is created by adding blue mould culture which brings a whole new layer of complexity and creativity to the cheesemaking process,” Caroline says. “Fungi is amazing in itself and the results of it in cheese are beautiful, not just visually but in the wonderfully rich, complex and varied umami flavours and creamy textures that we can create.”
From the classics to new launches, blue cheesemakers have a strong sense of provenance that they can rely on – something which retailers can also utilise to boost their sales. “People love to know where and how the cheese is made – a good story goes a long way to helping sales,” Owen says.
Bill believes that Stilton in particular has a fantastic provenance story, and makers and mongers can both go further to showcase the care and artisan craftsmanship that go into the cheese. “If you went down the aisle at the moment, I don’t believe that you would know any of the story of the provenance of Stilton. I think we have to get the story across,” he says. Long Clawson is on a mission to modernise and celebrate Stilton’s rich heritage through social media platforms and influencers. “We’ve got to find some ways in which we can bring our product to life a way that’s relevant for the next generation,” Bill says.
Currently, British consumers buy Stilton on average 3.6 times per year, the bulk of which is in the run-up to Christmas, Bill says. Cheese retailers can likely sell Stilton with their eyes closed during the festive season. How, then, to spice up seasonal sales? As well as celebrating Stilton’s heritage, Bill says it is important to get the message out about the passion and care that go into each batch of Stilton. For instance, the milk used by Long Clawson comes from just a 40-mile radius, and on average the farmers’ cows spend 180 days grazing in the fields. “Generally, the public want to support farmers and they want to support provenance,” he says.
However, “There’s more to Christmas than Stilton,” adds Catherine Duffy, sales and marketing manager at Elite Imports, which distributes Bavarian cheeses including Cambozola and Montagnolo Affine in the UK. “Make sure you introduce a range of blue cheese styles as they’re all so different.” Catherine says the consumer appetite for Continental cheeses is growing, with Montagnolo Affine’s sales growing in the double digits, and shoppers have become more daring since Covid-19 hit. “The pandemic has ignited an interest in different styles and types of blue cheese and consumers have become more adventurous with their choices.”
For that reason, it’s a good idea to stock a wide range of flavour profiles and strengths – including cheeses that can convert blue cheese sceptics. For instance, Cambozola’s creamy qualities give it a strong track record, and Owen suggests Shepherds Purse’s Mrs Bell’s Blue as another variety that’s appealing to non-blue cheese eaters. “There are great cheeses available for people who don’t think they like blue cheese. They don’t overpower, and this surprises and delights people,” Catherine says.
Chutneys, jams and drinks have a strong place alongside the Christmas cheeseboard, too. “At Christmas we’ll have a lot of accompaniments for blue cheese in stock,” says Fraser MacLellan of East London Cheese Board. “Sweet wine, port, some stouts, sweet sherry, figs, jams, etc. They all help to encourage sales of blue cheese,” he says.
The festive season makes up the bulk of blue cheese sales, but retailers can find creative ways to keep the blue cheese fever alive through the other 11 months of the year. “Blue cheese is traditional at Christmas, but it brings a warming and rich element to any occasion all year round,” Caroline says. “It’s great to be promoted for summer BBQs and grazing platters any time of year.”
“[Stilton is] also fantastic in jack potatoes and crumbling on salad,” Bill says. “There’s a lot of versatility that I think we have to start to bring to light.” Caroline agrees. “Promoting its versatility both in terms of pairings and what it can bring to a recipe is vital. A small amount of blue cheese can really lift a recipe. Encouraging customers to try interesting pairings can inspire their own creativity too,” she says.
Catherine suggests ramping up the education element. “Introduce regular ‘guest blue cheeses’ and hero their different styles, tastes and stories,” she says. Fraser uses a seasonal strategy to switch up the cheeses in his shop. “We’ll have various blues depending on the time of year. We find that ewe’s milk blues such as Beenleigh or Lanark Blue are popular in spring and summer, with Stilton, Stichelton, Shropshire Blue, etc. gaining more traction post summer. There are a few popular soft blues that we’ll stock throughout the year such as Isle of Wight Blue,” he adds.
Why not try taking customers on a tour of Europe’s most beloved blue cheese – and its best-kept secrets? Introducing regular tastings could be a great way to engage customers and drive sales higher. “Not many people know that Bavaria makes award-winning cheese, so surprise them with a Bavarian cheese masterclass,” Catherine suggests.
With more creative varieties popping up and classic flavours going strong, it’s an exciting time to be selling blue cheeses – for Christmas 2021 and beyond.
Fraser MacLellan, East London Cheese Board, shares his tips for selling blue cheese
The UK has such a great variety of blue cheeses that it’s easy to find something for everyone. Whether it’s pasteurised or unpasteurised, hard or soft, salty or sweet or more, there are so many great British cheeses that unless you really dislike blue cheese there is something there for you. I also love how we have the classic blue cheeses such as Stilton and Shropshire Blue, but also some really unique blue cheeses such as Beauvale, a blue cheese with the soft and creamy texture of a Gorgonzola but rich and buttery Stilton flavours, or Burt’s Blue, a wonderful semi-soft blue from Cheshire. I’m also a big fan of Lanark Blue, a ewe’s milk blue from Scotland.
We sell a lot of Stilton at this time of year so our customers definitely still love a classic blue, but our new varieties are growing in stature. If we’re low on Stilton and waiting for a new batch to come in then we’ll suggest alternatives, which helps those alternatives reach new palates. We also have on occasion had customers come in and specifically ask for ‘something different’ for the blue cheese on their cheeseboard, although it will quite often be accompanied by a bit of Stilton to keep everyone happy. We quite often get asked for advice on blue cheeses as they’re not to everyone’s taste, so we’ll find out about the customers tastes and advise accordingly, or perhaps offer a small amount of two blues so they can see what types they prefer.