Britain’s blue cheese renaissance

16 November 2020, 09:00 AM
  • Blue cheese is having a moment on the global stage, and Britain’s cheesemakers are leading the way on experimental new varieties and classic heritage cheeses
Britain’s blue cheese renaissance

For Britain’s cheesemakers, 2020 has been a rollercoaster ride. Although data commissioned from Kantar by the campaign Milk Your Moment showed that cheese consumption grew by 48% during the UK’s lockdown, due to more people cooking and eating from home, the closure of the hospitality sector left many speciality cheesemakers and dairy farmers scrambling to find a home for surplus stock. In some cases, those who relied on foodservice markets were forced to throw out perfectly good products.

According to the Stilton Cheese Makers Association (SCMA), sales of Stilton, the UK’s most popular blue cheese, declined by up to 30% as a result of the closure of the country’s hospitality and events industry, farmers markets and export markets.

Elsewhere, however, farmhouse cheesemakers have found success this year by pushing the boat out on their blue cheeses. After a challenging year, what’s next for the industry’s heritage cheeses and the innovative brands on the market?

New blues on the cheeseboard

Think of blue cheese and what comes to mind? Possibly a classic British Stilton or a Roquefort or Gorgonzola – some of the industry’s biggest names. But the UK’s cheese market is full of radical cheesemakers who are pushing boundaries of blue cheese, and finding real success.

Feltham’s Farm, whose soft blue cheese Renegade Monk won this year’s inaugural Virtual Cheese Awards, proves the strong appetite for experimental blues. Marcus Fergusson, who runs Feltham’s Farm with Penny Nagle, says he considers Somerset, where the farm is based, as the “Silicon Valley of cheese”.

“We’re surrounded by some of the best Cheddar makers in the world, so when we started out, we knew there was no point in making a traditional cheese. We had to make something completely different.” Renegade Monk has been described as a genuinely new cheese. Ned Palmer’s A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles said: “It fits into no previously existing category of cheese”.

Marcus and Penny were inspired by the Epoisses and Langres cheeses they’d come across on their travels in France, but decided to create a washed-rind cheese with a kick of something different. The answer came in the form of the fungus Penicillium Roquefortii to make it a blue washed-rind. “The cheese is intense because it combines that funky washed-rind flavour with the minerality of blue.”

For Marcus, finding the perfect balance between that just-right blue kick and something too overpowering is one of the joys of cheesemaking. But as exciting as it may be to make a new blue cheese, Marcus admits that consumers are still divided between the blue lovers and those who stick their noses up at the smell. However, he believes that the unconverted just haven’t found the right variety yet.

“[It’s] a shame as blue cheeses certainly exist on a spectrum from the mild and creamy to the strong and crumbly, and if they persisted they would surely find a blue for their palate.”

Feltham’s Farm is not the only award-winning blue on the British market. In fact, UK cheesemakers have long found success by innovating with blue cheeses. Take Young Buck by Mike’s Fancy Cheese, a raw-milk blue cheese that was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland. As a fresh take on an age-old recipe, the variety was quick to pick up industry awards, and it wasn’t long before it was featured in Michelin-starred restaurants across the UK.

Shepherds Purse is also no stranger to a successful blue cheese. Caroline Bell, joint managing director of the Yorkshire-based cheesemaker, says that while the brand’s Yorkshire Blue is its best seller, thanks to its creamy, mellow yet rich flavour, Mrs Bell’s Blue is its most-awarded cheese, delivering complex flavours of “meadowy sweetness” from the sheep’s milk and umami flavours from the salt and the blue.

“Blue cheese is a delicacy; it’s not there just for function, it’s there to be savoured and enjoyed, to be noticed,” Caroline says. “It’s complex, diverse and delivers so much in terms of texture and flavour. I think consumers are looking for that well-balanced flavour and they are looking for a blue that they can enjoy each and every time.”

Shepherds Purse’s more recently crafted recipe, the luxuriously creamy Harrogate Blue, has picked up numerous gold medals, too. “It was the cheese my sister and I launched when we took on the reins from our mum in 2012, and we were super proud when it got into the final 16 cheeses in the world at the 2018 World Cheese Awards,” says Caroline.

But while Britain’s cheesemakers have long created award-winning blues, soon they may need to start looking abroad for inspiration. “Britain has been at the forefront of experimentation in recent years, but there is a real renaissance going in in America right now so it is definitely worth keeping an eye on what is developing internationally,” explains Marcus. In fact, Rogue River Blue, an organic blue cheese produced in Oregon, stole the show at last year’s World Cheese Awards. It was named World Champion Cheese in 2019, becoming the awards’ first ever American winner.

Perfecting a classic

Alongside the UK’s prowess for blue cheese innovation, classic heritage cheeses are still holding their own. According to data from Kantar, Stilton Blue sales jumped 8.3% from 2019 to 2020, reaching £39.8m. Despite the SCMA’s warning during the height of the pandemic that some producers could go out of business due to the drop in sales, Kim Kettle of the SCMA and Clawson Dairy said sales have picked up somewhat since lockdown restrictions were eased, and retail sales are holding up well.

This is good news for the only cheese in the UK with a certified trademark to protect its British heritage, and the first British cheese to be awarded a European protected designation of origin status. This means that cheese labelled Stilton can only be made following a time-honoured tradition. Only six dairies, located in the three counties of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire, are licensed to produce Stilton. So what keeps consumers coming back to this classic blue?

According to Kim, it’s Stilton’s richness and versatility, which “can liven up mealtimes” whether it’s on a cheeseboard or your evening meal.

“Blue cheese like Stilton offers a more complex flavour than cheeses such as Cheddar, for example. It has a creamy texture and savoury flavour, which ensures it can be easily paired with a range of food and drink. Not only is it enjoyed as part of a cheeseboard, its subtle umami note helps consumers create inspiring dishes when it is used as an ingredient in recipes,” Kim explains.

It may be Stilton’s speciality status that caused its lockdown decline, with other cheeses, such as cheddar, actually seeing an uplift in sales during the lockdown as consumers went back to basics in the shops.

That said, the radical shift in buying habits that occurred during the lockdown was enough to see many cheesemakers through the difficult period. “After the empty supermarkets at the beginning of lockdown, people were very much questioning where their food came from and whether they should change their buying habits. In light of this, it is perhaps possible that some consumers stopped buying the same cheeses they always picked up from the supermarket and tried something a little different,” says Marcus.

The future is blue

With all this in mind, what’s next for Britain’s blue cheeses? “For our money, and taking a leaf from Ned Palmer’s book where he described Renegade Monk as a postmodern cheese, we would expect to see more hybrid blue cheeses, combining different styles of cheese, milks and techniques to come up with new, exciting combinations and inventions,” says Marcus.

Caroline agrees that there is more competition than ever before in the blue cheese market, which is supported by an increase in consumption. “With blue cheese, success relies on being able to create a consistently excellent product, and being able to do that as you grow and evolve,” she says.

Going forward, there’s plenty of room for more experimentation – from uncovering new flavours to improving cheesemaking processes. “We see opportunities for innovation in process and packaging,” Caroline says. “With blue cheese being a live product, requiring at least a little oxygen to continue to thrive, it’s notoriously a specialist job to succeed in maintaining quality and life once it’s cut and wrapped, and there is always room for improvement.” Consumers have proved their appetite for blue cheese is growing. Now, it’s the producers’ turn to show what they can do.

Image courtesy of the SCMA

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