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As shoppers look for meaningful gifts to show their loved ones they care this festive season, three cheese experts share their top tips for creating something truly special.
Of course, key to any good cheese hamper or gift are perfect pairings. As Fraser MacLellan, owner of The East London Cheeseboard, explains, “We always look for good matches when making gifts from cheese. So complementary crackers, chutney, etc. that enhance the tasting experience are important.
“Appearance is also important for a gift. Other things that go into the hamper need to look good and create a good first impression. Luxury items are also a good addition to gifts as they are things that you’d perhaps be less likely to buy for yourself but are great in a gift, so things like truffled salami or slow-baked figs work well in a gift box.”
Gemma Williams, owner of The Little Cheesemonger, adds, “I always make sure that accompaniments are relevant to the cheese and the other items in the hamper. Each item in the hamper should be complementary rather than a clash. It gets easier the bigger the hamper gets as you can create more links to other types of foods and drinks.”
When it comes to cheese gifts, indies need to be able to offer something truly special that their customers can’t get from the multiples.
As Simon Jones, managing director of Forest Deli, explains, “For gifts the essential task is knowing what extras make hampers and cheese boards look special and individually put together.
“Being able to offer and explain the flavours and characteristics of the cheeses is the starting point, and directing customers to the chutney or pickle that works on the plate.” This is something that supermarkets simply cannot do.
For Gemma, it comes down to knowing your produce really well. “So well that you know which flavours match from memory,” she says. “You can throw anything in a hamper and hope they like it, but if you add your expertise and experience you can create something truly special and unique.”
Fraser adds, “As a cheesemonger, it’s hard to know everyone’s likes and dislikes if it’s a customer buying a gift for someone else, so in those cases a really well-thought-out selection, that covers all aspects of enjoying cheese.
“It’s important to use accompaniments such as crackers, chutneys, etc. that complement the cheese in the selection and if possible, have some relationship to it. For example, a Scottish selection could have oatcakes and jams from Scotland too. Drinks that are paired with the cheeses are a good addition, with tasting notes for the recipient so they get the best out of the pairings. You can then add another level and include cheese knives, or a nice slate or wooden board to complete the gift.”
As Fraser explains, “We have a lot of selections and gifts ready to go over the festive period so when we’re talking with customers and they say they’re looking for a gift for someone, then we offer them these selections as options. We also have gifts on display in the shop so that they’re noticeable to anyone who comes into the shop.
“If a customer is buying cheese and we find out it’s a gift then we’ll offer crackers, etc. or the option to ‘upgrade’ to a hamper or something like that. We also have lots of pairings available, so from their cheese selection, we can recommend wine, beer, etc. to add to the gift.”
While in-store promotion is of course key to upselling appealing gifts, Gemma also suggests using digital tools. “We keep customers updated on social media platforms about what we offer, and make sure they know it’s time sensitive.”
The impact of cost-of-living
How Christmas will play out is difficult to predict at the East London Cheeseboard, as Fraser tells Speciality Food. “We’ve definitely seen a tightening of the belts with our customers, but it’s been subtle. Perhaps Christmas will be the same and people will buy slightly smaller, less expensive gifts if the current trend continues.
“On the other hand, it’s been such a terrible year for us all that people might have a bit of a blowout at Christmas. We saw this with Covid where it seemed like everyone was fed up and really wanted to enjoy themselves and share this with friends and family, so maybe the current crisis won’t impact too much. It’s always so hard to predict at the best of times, without throwing other external factors into the mix.”
As Gemma sees it, “People are still going to buy Christmas gifts. We just need to hammer home how special it is to order from small local businesses like ours. That not only do they get more for their money in terms of quality, but they are also contributing to keeping high street shops open, a cluster of micro-producers and local people in work.
“This message tends to hit a chord as we all have either family members who own their own businesses or are employed in them.”
Simon concludes, “We’re hoping that people will still want a good Christmas and enjoy some treats and luxuries, and our focus will be on the cheese, as always, with the message of quality and local.”