Exclusive report: The world of artisan cheese in 2023

14 August 2023, 08:44 AM
  • Speciality Food prides itself on ‘taking the pulse’ of the fine food and drink industry. In this report, we deep dive into the issues and stories being discussed by the nation’s cheese makers and on retail’s cheese counters
Exclusive report: The world of artisan cheese in 2023

Regenerative farming needs to be defined and regulated

Organic producers need to “shout more” about their work and the importance of chemical-free farming in the face of rising talk around regeneration in agriculture, says Jessica Kimber Holloway, commercial and operations director at Godminster.

“There are two topics I think worth talking about currently,” she adds. “They are pricing, and the difference between conventional farming and regenerative and organic farming. That’s a discussion which is becoming more and more confused.”

Jessica believes consumers are getting caught up in a jumble of jargon between the terms, and that laypeople won’t know the difference between them. “Regenerative. What does it mean? What is it? Where’s the legislation to say you can actually call yourself regenerative? There’s a lack of clarity around regenerative farming, which is getting a lot of press. But really anyone can call themselves a regenerative farmer. What are they relating to?”

It’s these details, says Jessica, that need ironing out, with a clearly defined benchmark put in place.

And, “Organic should be having a bigger, not a lesser, voice at the moment. Those in organic farming need to work harder to shout about why it’s important.”

Jessica is concerned about A grade land being bought up, and turned over to rewilding as a kind of ‘virtue signalling’, but believes all efforts (including regenerative) should have a focus on “feeding the nation”. 

“On the back of Covid, and having experienced food shortages, we need to be careful. Getting back to nature is a good thing, but it needs to be in balance. And it needs management and maintenance, looking at the overall picture. You can’t just take 300 to 400 acres and do what you want with it. It’s got to be for the whole community, and with the intention of feeding people.”

On the topic of milk, Jessica is also worried, particularly about the shortening gap between organic and conventional milk pricing, which has seen some farmers decertifying and moving away from organic to make more money, which she calls a “really sad state of affairs”.

She is concerned about the impact this will have not just on organic food production, but the future of dairy farming as a whole, with fewer young farmers staying in the family business. 

“You’ve got to make a living, and there just isn’t the money in dairy to invest in the future,” Jessica says. “Last year milk prices skyrocketed, which was really great. But since then we’ve lost the Milk Marketing Board. All the dairies have been negotiating with farmers, which is fine, but we need to have some consistency.

“This yo-yo effect around the milk price is disruptive. We just need stability so everybody can plan – from the farmer, through to retail.”

It pays to be different

Standing out from the crowd is the key to success, says one industry insider.

According to cheesemaker and chair of the Specialist Cheesemakers Association, Catherine Mead OBE, the past three years have been a time of “extraordinary change and volatility”.

Most producers, she says, have had to make fundamental changes to their business models, including switching to online and direct sales which, in many cases, brought makers closer to customers. 

They were able to, “Reinforce messages of short supply chains, provenance, integrity of raw ingredients, and to develop customer interest and loyalty to local food.”

At a time when costs are rising in food, she adds it’s increasingly difficult not to put up the price of cheese, so building brand loyalty, being “exceptional” and “clearly differentiating” products has never been more important.

“Driving unnecessary cost out of the business and focussing on our environmental commitments are also key. As smaller businesses we are more agile and perhaps, budgets permitting, better able to make quick and positive changes - an important element of financial sustainability and achieving customer relevance.

“Organisations such as the Specialist Cheese Makers Association who support on matters technical and quality, are vital in ensuring cheese makers can maximise the opportunities and meet customer expectations.

Vegan cheese takes a leap forward

Plant-based artisanal cheeses are on the rise, says Ellie Brown, founder of The Kinda Co in Somerset. This is largely driven, she believes, by customers demanding more variety, and quality that can match traditional dairy.

“I’ve seen an emergence of a lot of other brands developing vegan cheese lines,” Ellie explains. “And I think in 10 years’ time the plant-based cheese market will look a lot like the alternative proteins market now. A decade ago we didn’t have many vegan options for things like burgers or sausages, then along came brands like Beyond Meat, and now they are all over the supermarket and restaurants. Vegan cheese isn’t quite there yet, but I think it will happen.”

A self-professed ‘cheese snob’, Ellie says the key to getting vegan cheese right is understanding that, “You won’t win anyone over if it [your product] doesn’t stand on its own two feet next to dairy.”

She continues, “I think those brands who first started making vegan cheese are realising their customers are becoming more discerning with what they want. More and more people are looking for alternatives, and customers are definitely being more demanding. It’s interesting to see big cheese companies responding. So, Cathedral City and Applewood bringing out vegan cheeses that are now cited as favourites in supermarkets.”

Amongst her peers, Ellie says she’s seeing more and more artisanal techniques being employed. “Like us, more people are using cultures and creating bloomy rinds for camembert-style cheeses. There are experimental cheeses being made using seeds and pulses, like beans, with varying degrees of success. It’s an exciting time.”

Ellie started making her own vegan cheese, having been turned off by what was available to her when she gave up dairy. The Kinda Co’s top seller is its Farmhouse cheese, made with a combination of old and new methods. “We use a traditional culture, and fermentation to echo that sharp, tangy, lovely flavour. And we bring extra umami with things like miso and nutritional yeast for that depth and rounded taste. Lots of our customers aren’t vegan. I think it’s a true testament to any free-from product. That someone would choose to eat it just because they enjoy it.”

She’s also seeing sales rocketing for the business’s take on feta. “It’s a great all-rounder. As soon as we start making it, our supply is being stripped out!”

Scottish cheese shouldn’t be seen as a gimmick

When Speciality Food tells Rory Stone, of Highland Fine Cheeses, that Scottish Crowdie (a creamy, fresh cheese) has been trending online, he’s flummoxed. 

It’s just the kind of news the cheese industry needs ‘over the border’. However, as he explains, getting Scottish cheese out to consumers is a battle.

“One of the things that’s really dominant today, understandably, is the circular economy. Multiples like this sort of thing. They want to be strong whichever location they’re based in, and will try to source local products.”

Although supporting local is commendable, and important, Rory says it makes it harder for ‘outsiders’ to break the mould, unless there’s a thematic opportunity. “If anything,” Rory explains, “Scottish cheesemakers spend so much time immersed in tartan, ginger wigs and thistles, that we’ve almost done ourselves out. We’ve over-gimmicked our products.”

But, he quickly adds, Scottish cheese is something that should be heralded, at any time of the year – not just when occasions arise. The country’s lush pastures and wetter climate lend are ideal for producing high-quality dairy. “The great thing about Scotland is our rainfall. It’s not something most celebrate, but it means we can grow a lot of grass. The west of Scotland is natural dairy country, and Ayrshire is fantastic for sileage. We should be good at making cheese!”

Rory looks to the Irish model of cheesemaking, and selling into wholesale as something Scotland should replicate. “They’ve done incredibly well in promoting their products. We should be able to do that here.”

Scotland is, Rory adds, “Terribly keen to promote its dairy. We want to take part in the whole UK economy. No doubt, I’d say that’s true of all cheesemakers in the north. It’s about learning how to work better south of Hadrian’s Wall.”

Retailers unfamiliar with trending Crowdie (made and sold by HFC and a select few other Scottish producers) might be interested in trying it out on the counter.

Steeped in legend, it is, reveals Rory, a simple curd cheese, taught to Scots by the Vikings. “Previous to the Highland Clearances, this was all cattle country. In the north you had tiny farms where they reared cattle. Every little house or croft had a cow.

“When there was spare milk it would be preserved to make cheese. The top was creamed off for butter, then the partially skimmed milk would warm by the range. The naturally occurring culture from the udders of the cow would gobble up the lactose, and eventually it would set like yoghurt. Then it would be put onto direct heat, to scramble like eggs, and hung in muslin to drain off the whey, with salt added. It was eaten fresh, and would keep for a couple of days.”

Rory, maker of the likes of Minger and Fat Cow, in addition to Crowdie, says it’s a good alternative to cream, smeared over a scone with jam, or used to make a mackerel pate…even ice cream. “It’s quite moreish when you start nibbling away.”

The world is looking to Britain for cheese inspiration

Jonny Crickmore, founder of Fen Farm Dairy, says he’s noticing more ‘new wave’ cheeses coming through globally – many of them taking inspiration from UK makers.

“We’re definitely leading the way,” Jonny says. “The British cheese industry, over the years, has grown to the point where it’s become more of a serious outfit. The quality of what we’re making here is undeniable.

“There are two types of cheese being made in the UK. You’ve got commodity block cheese (the big industry stuff that’s everywhere) and then the speciality cheese scene in which you’ve got some real old school traditional territorials that have been around forever and stuck through the tough times when the cheese scene died completely.

“Over the past 20 to 25 years a new wave of cheesemakers have come through that are completely different. There hasn’t been this kind of movement before, and it’s catching on with other makers overseas.”

Jonny points out the rise in artisan makers, working on a smaller scale, creating what he says is a much more diverse array of cheeses.

“People always talk about France as a ‘benchmark’, but while France has a got a lot of cheeses, they are all quite big and old businesses, whereas we have this new, vibrant scene that’s having a knock-on effect in other places like the USA and Australia. The attention British cheese is getting is brilliant, and it’s meaning more and more exciting, interesting things are happening around the world. That’s something to be proud of.”

Jonny, who’s currently working on a top-secret new cheese, says diversity and consistency have been key to Fen Farm’s success. This year the business opened its second mini, staff-free farm shop, having launched Britain’s first vending machine farm shop model. Additionally, the farm has just partnered with snack producer Made for Drink, which is making Baron Bigod and Onion flavour crisps as part of its English Heritage Range.

Being cautious and staying true to your brand are important for any cheesemaker looking to expand their horizons, Jonny warns. “Often diversifying can stop you focussing on the things you do so well. I would say to other makers, you’ve got to be careful not to do too many things. Every business is different but if the core of your business is farming, which for a lot of cheesemakers it will be, think about doing things that relate to what you’re good at.”

Cheesemakers need to support retailers at the counter

Retailers have a vital part to play in helping cheese businesses flourish and need to be given the right tools to make an impact, says Richard Newton-Jones, commercial director at Snowdonia Cheese Company. It is essential, he adds, that retail staff are armed with the knowledge about what makes every single cheese special.

The brand has invested heavily in innovation when it comes to retailers, including producing description cards for each of its cheeses. “Displayed on the counter, the side facing the retailer outlines the key details, including flavour profiles and regions, milk type, and information about whether the cheeses are vegetarian-friendly,” says Richard. “The side facing the customer shows the brand name of each cheese.”

Presentation is crucial, with Snowdonia Cheese Company priding itself on offering training to counter staff, giving advice on the best way to display its cheeses to attract customers, and maximise sales.

“As cheesemakers we also recognise the value of offering tasting stock to retailers so shoppers can sample our cheeses in store. Customers always love to try before they buy and are often drawn to counters with cubes of cheese available to graze on as they make their selections.”

The company provides eye-catching, branded point-of-sale displays, including recipe cards to “spark the imagination” and encourage food lovers to cook with their cheeses. 

Great Stilton doesn’t end with the cheesemaker

With nearly 50 years in the industry, Kim Kettle, farm liaison director at Long Clawson Dairy, knows his Stilton. And as we broach the subject of Christmas, says the importance of affinage and making sure staff at retail are skilled in caring for the business’s blue cheeses, cannot be underestimated.

A great Stilton starts in the factory, where Kim says the making process is a combination of every single element being done properly. “Every single thing you do, every time you touch a cheese, it must be done consistently and correctly. You can’t just pick one person and say ‘make the cheese’.

The first 24 hours of making Stilton, converting the milk into cheese curds, is the most crucial, with Kim adding, “If you don’t get that right, you’ll have an inferior cheese, no matter how good you are at affinage. And you can never lose sight of that.”

After five days, Stilton is what Kim calls ‘a blank canvas’. Then it’s up to Long Clawson’s team to nurture every batch accordingly, on the understanding that a batch made today might be ready two weeks ahead of a batch produced tomorrow. “If you didn’t have an affineur,” he says, “and did the same thing every day, your cheese would be very inconsistent. People need to understand it’s a living, breathing entity.”

In the hands of an inexperienced monger or retailer, Stilton can be ruined, so it’s important, says Kim, to speak to makers, and absorb their advice and knowledge to ensure a great result on the counter. “A good cheesemonger will understand each individual cheese and how it continues to mature, but, also importantly, how their customers will enjoy it.

“Some will come in after a young blue that tastes milky. I would not say that’s the perfect Stilton, but some will enjoy that piece of cheese. Know what customers are looking for – a younger Stilton, or something more mature with a creamy centre.”

The biggest evil in Stilton selling is letting the cheese dry out and crack through incorrect storage. “You need to keep it in an environment that controls moisture,” advises Kim. “Neal’s Yard is a good example of somewhere that’s got the facilities to store the cheese, because they can control their storage environment.

“Most Stiltons need some form of packing. Good parchment or wax papers that let the cheese breathe are best. Don’t vacuum pack. It starves the cheese of oxygen, and its ability to mature.”

Finally, how does the Stilton pro eat his?

“I love it with a baked potato. A proper baked potato, done in the oven for a couple of hours with a nice crispy skin. Really soft inside. Fork in plenty of butter, add a bit of Stilton. That’s to die for.

“Stilton isn’t just for cheeseboards. It’s extremely versatile to cook with because of its salty, umami profile. You can use a little in stews or sauces for a background note, without anyone actually knowing you’ve added blue cheese. A little goes a long way. There’s a lot you can do with 150g.”

Reacting to consumer trends is essential

The cheese market is being impacted by a shift in consumer preferences, says Nick Beadman, head of commercial at Welsh dairy cooperative, South Caernarfon Creameries (SCC). He is seeing a peaked interest in consumers seeking high-quality, artisanal cheeses offering unique flavours, with sustainability and ethical sourcing ranking as key purchasing factors.

This poses challenges for British cheesemakers, he adds, but it can also open new doors.

“On one hand,” says Nick, “they have an opportunity to expand their product range and cater to the discerning palates of consumers. On the other hand, meeting these new demands requires investment in research and development, sourcing ingredients, and adapting production processes.”

Nick says health-conscious consumers are influencing the market, with a growing emphasis on wellness in the demand for healthier cheese alternatives. And SCC is responding. “We produce a range of reduced-fat products, some of which have recently achieved Gold at the International Cheese and Dairy Awards. In addition, we are trialling lower salt/no salt cheese alternatives without compromising on quality.” Forward thinking allows the brand to stay ahead of the curve, as does responding the growing demand for more sustainable, minimal impact products.

The dairy works closely with its farmer members to pull focus on sustainability in areas including responsible land management, energy efficiency, and waste reduction.

Customers are spending more and looking for local alternatives

Ross Parrock, co-owner of Mill Street Store & Deli in Nayland says, as a new retailer, he’s been shocked at the strength of business recently. Footfall at the village deli and café is on the up weekly, with the businessman putting it down to the rising costs of supermarket shopping.

“We’re finding people are coming to us from miles away,” Ross explains. “It’s been very surprising. But I think the reason more delis are opening, and being successful, is that the gap between prices at small independents and larger supermarkets is shrinking. While supermarket costs have shot up in recent months, independents have not quite seen this impact as we tend to buy premium goods at a higher price anyway. We’ve always paid a fair price and got a good product.”

Ross says the interest in locally produced cheeses has been very noticeable. His range of regional cheeses have proved bestsellers, with consistent interest in provenance, traceability and animal welfare.

“Our customers are interested in quality and in English produce – particularly when it comes to cheese. If you look back 20 years or more, there wasn’t a great deal out there in the English cheese market. Now it’s exploded and there are constantly new amazing varieties coming on.”

When Mill Street Store & Deli first opened Ross noticed a leaning from customers towards flavoured cheeses they hadn’t seen in the area before. Truffle goudas, cumin goudas and wild garlic Yarg. “But after they’d tried those, customers started coming back in, wanting something more classic, like Morbier, Reblochon or a classic Brie de Meaux. 

“While they’re shopping for those, they’re becoming more engaged with less known similar cheeses from the UK and they don’t even want to try them. As soon as they know a cheese is British, they just want a piece.”

Ross says delis and cheesemongers are in a unique position to educate the public about British-made cheeses, and that his own customers love learning about UK alternatives to big name continental varieties. He takes Morbier as an example, saying, “Ashcombe is the natural British alternative to a Morbier. Interestingly I’m finding people prefer Ashcombe, but having Morbier in stock, and being able to show customers the cheeses side by side is a really good way of introducing them to British alternatives.

“People are enjoying the quality, and are happy to pay extra for it.”

With a fully stocked, boundless counter of cheeses from across Europe, Ross is pleased with the variety he’s able to sell, but dreams of more mozzarella or burrata-type cheeses made on home turf.

“I really want to see some more locally made ones. There are a few good ones already but it’s a big gap in the market, I think. In America a lot of delis make it in-house. Obviously it is a skill, as anything is, but certainly it’s achievable.”

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