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Britain’s artisan cheese market is maturing like the finest of its aged Cheddars. This small island now produces 1,000 varieties of cheese, according to Cheesegeek founder Edward Hancock, which is nearly double the 550 produced by France.
At Speciality Food, we’re the first in line to celebrate the successes of the British cheese industry, but even we can’t deny the allure of Continental cheeses. From the classics, like Comté, Gruyère and Parmigiano Reggiano, to the lesser known but increasingly well-loved varieties, European cheeses are iconic for their indulgent flavours, artisan farmhouse techniques and local terroir.
Further afield in North America, speciality producers are quickly rising the ranks to erase America’s international reputation for sub-par cheese with award-winning options that are well worth stocking.
Even Asia, long distanced from all things dairy, is catching on to the cheesemaking bug as consumers find their taste for Cheddar. In China, cheese lollipops have recently taken off.
Cheesemakers in the country produced around 373,000 tonnes of cheese in 2021, up 1.3 percent from 2020, according to the Beijing-based Intelligence Research Group. But before you dive in to revamp your international cheese selection, it’s well worth taking stock and making a plan to get the best return on your investment.
Exploring lesser-known varieties
With so many cheeses to choose from, should you stick to the tried and true classics or take a punt on something your customers might be less familiar with? “It’s hard to get away from many of the usual suspects like Brie, Comté, Emmental, and Gruyère, but probably some of our best-selling international cheeses are cheeses like Montagnolo Affine, Gorgonzola, Délice de Bourgogne, and more recently Alp Blossom,” says Mark Kacary, managing director of The Norfolk Deli.
Indeed, experimentation appears to be having its moment, with sales of firm favourites like Parmesan, Edam, Mozzarella, Halloumi and Feta down 2.7 percent in value and 6.7 percent in volume last year, according to data from Kantar. At the same time, Maasdam, an Emmental-style Dutch cheese; Manchego, a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese; and Grana Padano, an Italian cheese similar to Parmigiano Reggiano, have seen sales rise.
Lavinia Cooke, general manager at Delifonseca, says her team has been taking more risks on shaking up their stock. “We have been rotating cheeses, particularly Continental, much more in the last few months, trying out different or seasonal cheeses,” she says. What does this look like in practice?
“Researching and liaising with suppliers allows us to explore other varieties, and when a new cheese comes in, we always put it on tasters to get feedback from the customers.” This step is key for gathering intel about the unique preferences of customers in your area – it will vary from one shop to the next. Most importantly, this offers a chance to engage customers and get them used to stepping out of their usual routine.
“Most prove to be a great hit, some we probably wouldn’t stock again, but all are good for discussion,” Lavinia says. “Two recent additions that have been selling particularly well in the last few weeks are the Chevre d’Argental (goat’s milk) and the Brebirousse d’Argental (sheep’s milk) from France.”
Look to award-winners for an idea of where to start with international cheeses – they’re sure to wow customers, and the credentials of an award win might help convince them to purchase something a little more out of the ordinary. “Cheeses that have won awards are always reliable sellers,” Lavinia says. “For example, Montagnolo Affine, Ossau Iraty, and Von Mühlenen Gruyère.”
Top tips for displays
Many customers will need a bit of a nudge to get out of their usual cheese buying habits, so – rather than at a typical serve-over counter. “When it comes to international cheeses, we can give them a proper good showcase event, displaying cut pieces as well as how the cheese looks whole,” Toby says.
He has successfully integrated a number of international cheeses into the shop’s regular rotation using this method, including Alp Blossom, a Bavarian cheese coated in flowers and herbs; Hornkäse, a creamy cheese from Germany with flavours of truffle; and Red Wine Farmer, a Swiss variety from Affineur Walo with a fabulously rich taste.
“All of these started as either a recommendation or were spotted at events, then we slowly began pushing them with showcase events. All three have now become regulars in our cheese room,” Toby continues.
If your shop doesn’t have the luxury of a cheese room, you can still create displays that inspire exploration. For example, you can’t go wrong with separating cheeses into the countries and regions where they’re made.
This is a great opportunity to add informative signage about the history of cheeses in these regions – but Lavinia suggests keeping all your blue cheeses together to showcase them as a whole.