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Strict lockdown restrictions and rules on social contact are finally easing, meaning that retailers can bet on a summer defined by happy reunions between friends and family and long hours of al fresco dining under the sun. With Covid-safe gatherings given the go-ahead, customers will no doubt be stocking up on food and drink to wow their guests this season.
What could be better for these warmer months than a sharing platter full of chunky wedges of soft, summer cheese, fresh fruit and crisp crackers all served with a glass of chilled wine? “Cheesemakers have become experts at making great cheese all year round, but nothing beats those made using milk as animals move onto lush new summer pastures,” says Paul Heasman, purchasing coordinator at Anthony Rowcliffe & Son.
The average consumer may not yet understand the differences between summer and winter cheeses, offering retailers a prime opportunity to share their expertise. “Generally, cheeses made in the summer are created using milk from animals that are grazing outdoors, whereas winter cheeses are made using milk from animals which are being fed on winter feed,” explains Jen Grimstone-Jones, cheesemonger at Cheese Etc, The Pangbourne Cheese Shop. “This means that summer cheeses are often more herbaceous.”
“Winter cheeses didn’t exist historically and are a miracle of hay, silage and winter fodder,” adds Tom Badcock, a cheese specialist at Harvey & Brockless. “The spring cheeses are green, and they often ripen differently. There are a number of reasons why, and amongst them is the inclusion of enzymically rich Colostrum,” a form of milk produced by mammals just prior to and after giving birth, “as well as the switch from rich silage to young pasture. As we go into summer, the cheeses become more predictable,” Tom continues. But predictable by no means equates to boring. As Paul explains, “Hard cows’ cheeses become more golden due to Beta-carotene in the grass, and flavours become more complex. Young cheeses just feel and look fresher, taking on more floral and grassy notes; goat and sheep cheeses exhibit more character from the milk, making the animal origin more pronounced – spring and summer is their optimum time.”
For fine food independents, understanding these differences is crucial to selling summer cheeses and translating their flavours through recommendations, choice pairings and cheeseboard inspiration.
To optimise your range for maximum sales in the summer, Paul advises carrying cheeses that will “create theatre and flavour. Have in mind some combinations so you are prepared to do the hard work for customers and give them an exciting experience,” he says.
From traditional clothbound Cheddar to soft blues and versatile goat’s cheese, there are many options to choose from. Some cheeses, such as Montgomery’s Cheddar, will be aged for 12-14 months, meaning they were made when cows were out in their pastures enjoying the fresh air over the previous summer. Fresh goat and sheep’s milk cheeses on the other hand are more available in the summer because that is when the animals reproduce, thus their milk is more available for cheesemaking.
Jen’s preferred summer selection includes cheeses guaranteed to bring the wow-factor to a sharing platter: Single Gloucester PDO (a fresh, sometimes nutty cheese that is lighter and younger than a Double Gloucester), Oxford Dolce (a creamy, slightly sweet blue cheese), Bix Cheese (a soft cheese made with an extra helping of cream) and Sinodun Hill (a goat’s cheese with a slightly crumbly core in a creamy rind). “They are all fairly unusual, so it is likely that your guests might not have tried them before.”
When it comes to accompaniments, Paul says to keep your options fresh and light in the summer. “Chutneys made from summer fruits and berries and vegetables will work well, along with jams and honey. Fresh fruits are a perfect partner to all cheeses, including with some you might not expect, such as blues.” As for drinks, “Fresh cordials, crisp white wines, rosés or light beers all work exceptionally well,” he says.
For goat’s cheese in particular, Jen recommends pairing with seasonal fruits, such as fresh figs, rhubarb and her favourite, fresh cherries. Although she adds, “For me, nothing beats freshly baked bread with cheese. I think it’s the aroma that gets me every time.”
Speak to your customers to find out if they are buying cheeses for a particular occasion or activity. For instance, Tom suggests that a summer picnic in the park would not be complete without a young goat’s cheese served with bitter orange conserve, Miller’s Damsel Buttermilk Wafers and a dry white wine. By personalising your recommendations, you can provide a service that customers will come back to time and time again.
When selling summer cheeses, you will also have to pay particular attention to their care. “Keep as little stock as possible,” Tom advises. “Keep the cheese consistently cold, and avoid over-trimming or cutting into pieces that will dry and lose their fresh vibrancy.”
“The softer cheeses are perfect for eating,” Jen adds, so advise customers to buy them as near to when they want to eat them as possible. In the shop, “keep them wrapped up well and in the fridge. If it’s particularly warm they don’t take as long to come up to room temperature for eating,” Jen explains, so be sure to let customers know they can take them out of the fridge half an hour before serving.
As well as keeping cheeses fresh and flavourful, in-store displays should be eye-catching and informative. Tom suggests piling cheeses high for a visually impressive display. “Stack multiple cheeses, pre-cut a basket of cheese and sell it on top of your serveover counter,” he says. “Make everything simple and grabbable with lots of free samples.” Of course, samples have not always been a safe serving option during the Covid-19 pandemic. While some retailers have resumed offering in-store samples, it’s safe to bet that not all customers will be comfortable enough to try a bite, so ensure any signs and boards are also up to scratch to entice shoppers who are putting safety first.
For Jen, displaying summer cheeses is an altogether simple affair – though still perfectly effective. “We don’t tend to move cheeses around our counter in different seasons, as it makes it confusing for our customers (and some of our part-time staff!). Instead we have a ‘cheese of the moment’ board and we highlight cheeses on it which are perfect for eating now. It’s amazing how many people will start with the cheese from the board when making their choices,” she says.
With exciting variations to be expected as standard alongside ever-present quality, artisan cheese comes into its own in the summer months. By offering a special selection for the season, retailers can help customers create a summer to remember.