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The British cheese industry has seen a raft of forces impacting its success over the past few years and while some of these are temporary glitches to be navigated, others prove themselves to be fully-formed movements shaping the sector.
Our approaches must evolve to suit the changing consumer, financial and political tides, but this doesn’t mean holding back on what makes fine cheese great. Indeed, by retraining our focus on quality, provenance and connection – and keeping abreast of the opportunities that arise – the fine cheese industry can be a force for good when facing the challenges ahead.
The cost-of-living crisis is one such challenge, with cheesemakers expecting to be pushed to demonstrate good value. “Cheese will come under pressure amidst the cost-of-living crisis, together with the wider food and drink category, with wide agreement that money concerns would make people spend less on cheese,” says a Mintel spokesperson, referencing the body’s recent The Future of Cheese Global Market Report 2023.
“The need for brands to demonstrate how their products deliver value for money is made particularly pressing by the popular view that own-label cheese is just as good quality as branded.”
According to James Grant, owner of No2 Pound Street cheesemonger, the independent retailer has an important role to play in keeping cheese lovers satisfied but not out of pocket. “Specialist cheese shops and delis need to offer menu advice, and we have to continue to shout out about the quality of cheese and the goodness it offers. Affordable nutritious and tasty meals can be made.”
Educating customers will play a key part when it comes to maintaining sales levels and appreciation of cheese – without leaving them short.
Mintel states that the squeeze on purse strings is only going to get more intense. “Own-label’s role in ensuring the grocers’ value-for-money image in cheese has been heightened in the income squeeze, with keen interest in tips for cheaper alternatives to favourite cheeses.”
With artisan cheesemakers and mongers not being keen to go down the discount route, smart usage of cheese could be the solution. “A focus on how their flavour packs a punch is needed for brands to justify their higher prices, to tap into the popular view that flavourful cheese helps make meals more interesting. Many people looking to packed lunches and at-home meals creates opportunities for brands to encourage ‘trading up while trading down’.”
Those who have cooked with cheese will be aware that the stronger the cheese, the less a recipe will require, and Cheese Buyer readers should use this knowledge to the advantage of their patrons and business. “Recipe ideas and menu cards offered when buying cheese are important,” James says.
“Using full, rich flavours to enhance an otherwise bland dish and avoid using too much cheese; making cheese the main ingredient in meals… using a mature rather than vintage cheese - this could be a swap out for a higher priced meat/fish meal. Try using a cheese sauce on a smaller piece of fish, reducing the cost of the fish by using a small piece of tasty cheese for a creamy sauce instead.”
Harking back to a habit which a number of us adopted during Covid-19 lockdowns due to necessity – meal planning – is set to be a smart move for consumers yet again in order to avoid food waste.
James suggests, “advising the consumer to buy what is needed for their menu planning. Not forgetting the ‘housekeeping’; storage is important and reiterated at point of sale. Using all of the cheese including the rind in soups and toppings is another great way to get mileage from your purchase.”
Conscientious shoppers aren’t set to be entirely focused on prices and value for money as the cost-of-living crisis (hopefully) fades. In 2023 and beyond, a considered purchase is just as likely to include thoughts and opinions around the sustainability of the cheese in question, too.
While the sometimes negative press sustainability attracts is sure to continue to be pushed by some, it’s important that its excitement and inherent opportunities are promoted and applauded.
“Artisan cheese production is a fusion of science, art and culture. As we enter the great agricultural transition, there has never been a better opportunity for a renaissance of British cheeses,” begins Patrick Holden, cheesemaker of Hafod Cheddar and founder of the Sustainable Food Trust.
Indeed, the appetite is already growing strong. “The transition will entail moving to production systems operating within the planetary boundaries of climate, nature and people, so cheeses which come from farming systems which deliver in these three areas – reducing emissions, restoring nature and building human capital –will be in demand,” he explains.
“Sustainable dairy farming offers the opportunity to deliver on all these fronts, especially when cheese is produced on the farm,” providing a ripe opportunity for independent sellers of quality, artisan cheeses. “Independent retailers have massive advantages over supermarkets in this area of sourcing sustainable and local products,” agrees Patrick.
“They are free from the paralysing proportions of highly centralised distribution systems, they can be fleet of foot and above all they can build personal relationships with their producers. Customers like nothing better than the person who serves them knowing the story behind the food that they are selling, especially if they have visited the relevant farm!”
In order to future proof the success of sustainably produced cheese in your store, Patrick suggests that retailers work to open their customers’ eyes to sustainability.
“They could set targets which they display to their customers on the percentage of local seasonal and sustainably produced products they sell, including cheeses,” he says, “and display photographs of the people who make the cheese in the store and make sure the labels tell the story.”
“A well-informed customer should be the most prized asset of an indie retailer,” Patrick continues. “They will be loyal and the more they know, the less they will wish to buy supermarket cheese, which these days comes mainly from industrial scale dairy farms, often from cows that never get out to grass. There is no future for massive-scale industrial dairy farming. Such systems are contributing to climate change, polluting rivers, destroying biodiversity and compromising the welfare of the cows.”
The tide is turning on industrially made cheese. “When we buy cheap Cheddar and other cheeses at supermarkets, we are paying a dishonestly low price because it doesn’t reflect the damage done to climate, nature or people. Because of this, it’s worth paying more for cheese where you know the story behind its production.”