Why 2021 was the year of British cheese

10 November 2021, 07:47 AM
  • Collaboration is key to maximising on the growing demand for artisan British cheeses
Why 2021 was the year of British cheese

If 2020 was a year full of challenges for cheesemakers and mongers as they adapted to the double-whammy of Covid-19 and Brexit, 2021 has, for many, been a year of opportunities. Speciality Food’s Cheese Report, published earlier this year, featured testimonials from cheesemakers who saw demand for their products jump, as well as retailers and distributors from the UK and around the world who noted that changing consumer behaviours were benefitting artisan producers.

“The after-effects of Brexit and the Coronavirus pandemic combined have seen demand for provenance, quality, and sustainability soar,” explains Kirstie Jones, marketing manager at Wales’ largest farmer-owned dairy cooperative South Caernarfon Creamery (SCC). With the ‘Buy British’ movement gaining steam, we explore how cheese businesses can harness this momentum to spread the message about handcrafted British cheeses.

The story behind the product

Caroline Bell of Shepherds Purse says there is no doubt that more people have discovered British cheeses due to the pandemic. But, she adds, the “quality and diversity are what is bringing people back for more. New fans have discovered cheeses they love, and hopefully they can see the passion and sheer talent that exists amongst Britain’s cheesemakers and mongers, too. The pandemic has meant that many have been able to take more time to shop, and that lends itself to a more considered experience and a willingness to explore more,” she says.

“Consumers increasingly want to know where their food comes from, how it’s made, the quality and its story,” agrees Kirstie. This growing demand has given producers like SCC, which makes Dragon cheese, the “perfect platform to expand our operations and shout about our own Welsh provenance and quality produce, giving a chance for our Welsh producers to tell their story themselves,” Kirstie adds. 

With sustainability high on consumers’ list of priorities, it’s well worth shouting about Britain’s vast array of sustainable and organic cheesemakers. “People want to shop local,” says Avril Molloy of the Irish School of Cheese, “but they may not realise that there’s a beautiful cheese similar to one that might have come from France, where the milk comes from down the road and the cheesemaker uses milk from their own herd that’s grazed on local land,” she says. “Sustainability and supporting local are really, really important to consumers at the moment. And there’s nothing better to demonstrate sustainability than a locally made cheese that hasn’t travelled thousands of miles, where terroir really sings through.”

What to stock

British cheeses are always in high demand around the holidays, and there are plenty of varieties out there to tantalise consumers’ taste buds – from the well-known and loved larger establishments that shoppers will always add to their baskets, to the ultra-small-scale producers that consumers can taste-test and explore. But Jen Grimstone-Jones, cheesemonger at Cheese Etc, The Pangbourne Cheese Shop, believes that British cheeses will be flying off the shelves at even higher rates this year. “Our local cheeses are always in high demand. We will sell out of all of them even though I will buy more in than last year. People like to know where their food comes from and a lot of our customers are conscious of food miles,” Jen says. Avril agrees that cheesemongers should put lesser-known local varieties in the spotlight to give them a chance to thrive. “I think people will latch on to them even more this year.”

The job of selecting exactly which British cheeses to stock is no easy decision, however. Jen says she is guided first of all by locality. “First and foremost, we try and stock local cheeses where we can, i.e. cheeses from Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Hampshire,” she says. “Then we try and visit as many of our cheesemakers as possible.” Inspiration can hit anywhere, even on holiday. “We stopped off in Gloucestershire whilst on holiday a few years ago and tasted the various Single Gloucester PDO cheeses that are made,” Jen explains. “On the back of that trip, we decided that we liked Jonathan Crump’s the best, and we now buy both our Double and Single Gloucesters directly from him. 

“It’s really important to us to stock cheeses where we know their provenance,” Jen says. “Our customers like to hear more about the cheeses and we like to learn from the cheesemakers. At the end of the day, if we are going to stock a new cheese in our counter it has to take the place of another so it has to offer something a bit different.”

For Abby Allen, sales and marketing director at Pipers Farm, traditional craft, quality ingredients and ethical, regenerative or organic farming practices are key. “In looking for new producers, it’s always been about supporting Britain’s small-scale family farms who are producing food in a way that not only tastes great, but isn’t damaging the environment and isn’t loaded with chemicals or highly processed. Our customers want to support British small producers, and the pandemic has only reinforced this. The British artisan cheese industry is really thriving. While customers may have their preferences when it comes to hard or soft cheeses, they are open to trying new varieties, especially British takes on Continental classics.”

At Pipers Farm, favourite British versions of traditional Continental cheeses include an organic halloumi from High Weald Dairy in Sussex – “It’s been very popular. Perhaps it’s our way of recreating a Greek holiday at home,” Abby says. Another firm favourite is Fen Farm Dairy’s Baron Bigod. “It’s the only traditional raw milk Brie-de-Meaux style cheese produced in the UK and one of only a handful of its type in the world to be made by the farmer on the farm and can genuinely be called a true farmhouse Brie. These are the kind of producers we like to celebrate.”

While these cheeses can be more expensive than their European counterparts, Jen says her customers understand that they are buying a high-quality product from small-scale producers. “At the end of the day, the flavour of British cheese is phenomenal and most people are driven by flavour.”

What’s next?

As life returns to a ‘new normal’, will the desire for British cheeses continue? SCC’s Kirstie believes so. “We anticipate this trend will continue even after the effects of the pandemic have faded.” But to keep sparking consumers’ inspiration, Caroline says engagement and connection are key. “This is the challenge as life returns to the pace where convenience again becomes more of a priority (consciously or sub-consciously),” she explains.

Cheesemakers can also look to the positive trends developing for the dairy sector. “Cheese has excelled over the last 18 months, providing a healthy yet indulgent ingredient and convenient snack for the consumer,” says Kirstie. “With the trend for health and convenience set to continue this provides the perfect opportunity for growth and new product development.”

For cheesemongers, pre-packaging British cheese hampers or boxes can help keep new British cheeses at the forefront of consumers’ minds even as life becomes more hectic again, Abby says. Aside from this, just keep telling cheesemakers’ stories. “Really get behind these producers and share their story in a way that will resonate with your customers,” she adds.

“We can be so proud of our existing cheesemakers,” Caroline says, “The talent, passion and dedication is incredible, and we are making world class cheeses.  We also have some wonderfully talented and passionate cheesemakers entering into the industry who appear to be approaching it with a real authentic love of the science, the art and the ethics of cheesemaking. We must continue to all work together to inspire and educate customers and consumers, so that they can connect more with what we do, why we do it, and the passion with which we do it. And continue to support each other, challenge each other and champion each other – the collaborative support in this industry is unrivalled.”

Image courtesy of Rowcliffe

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