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What is Christmas without a fridge full of cheese? From Stilton, with its voluptuous creamy bite and ripples of blue veining, to clothbound Cheddars, tawny at the edges with maturation, there are some key players to consider when building up that stocklist.
But it’s worth going off-piste too. Christmas is a great time to introduce customers to new flavours and products, and Mintel’s 2022 UK Cheese Market Report indicated innovation and flavour are key drivers for this sector.
Paul Heasman, purchasing manager at Rowcliffe, says a cautious approach should be sought out though, for anyone looking to innovate this festive season. “Cheese has always been a mainstay of Christmas dining; featuring as part of a main meal, occasions, or a major component of casual eating.
“As such, people tend to still use it in this format, with innovation primarly focusing around hot eating occasions. This ‘traditional’ seasonal eating is not something we anticipate changing. If anything, it should become more prevalent as people’s desire to understand artisanal producers and the provenance of their food develops.”
Tom Chatfield of European Fine Cheese says sales of cheeses containing truffle continue to soar, likely because of the pungent ingredient’s luxury status. He says it’s definitely a category cheesemongers should consider stocking for the festive period this year. “We see about 60% of our annual truffle cheese sales in the two months to Christmas,” Tom reveals. “It’s become a huge category and we’ve noticed a lot of shops have expanded their truffle lines. It’s a staple for many customers at Christmas now, and I really don’t think we’ve reached ‘peak truffle’ yet – for better or worse!”
Tom also thinks we’re in for a renaissance of heated cheese this season, which could entice new customers, hunting for a warming lunch, through delicatessen doors. “Raclettes and fondues seem to be making a comeback,” he says. “I think the market has been a bit tired recently in terms of the same repetitive things on counters through the summer. Adding value with a raclette could be a good shout. And investing in some higher quality cheeses with a high price point, which will make a better cash margin, of course.
“We’ve found having two or three ‘hero’ products has been a good move. We’ve been pleasantly surprised that higher priced cheeses are moving.”
Specialist cheese and drink consultant Sam Wilkin (known in the industry as The Cellarman) says that at an incredibly important time of year, when people are feeling the pinch and watching their pennies, selling the ‘dream’ and ‘story’ around cheese is almost as critical as how the products taste.
“Customers want to splash out on the good things in life,” he says. “Things that are delicious and bring pleasure – and cheese is top of the list. In a cold hard retail sense, it is a bumper time of the year. The silly season for cheese. But if people are going to part with their money, they want to know more about what they’re buying.”
As an advocate of British cheese, Sam says he always recommends pointing shoppers in the direction of local varieties, adding that new EU import laws coming in soon, will affect the cost of cheese coming in from the continent, making cheese made on UK soil appear more keenly priced.
“I definitely predict an uptick in British cheese sales because of the new legislation around paperwork and the consignment of cheese,” Sam explains. “Cheeses people might have enjoyed traditionally at Christmas may be more expensive, so they might be encouraged to look more domestically.”
In addition to mainstays such as Stilton and Cheddar, he recommends stocking Baron Bigod (particularly the truffled variety). “But there are so many other producers to seek out too. Pevensey Blue, which is Gorgonzola-like, is excellent. Or a nice Ticklemore. I also highly recommmend Yarlington – a savoury showstopper washed rind that’s a collaboration between a cider maker and a cheese maker.”
Sam thinks 2023 should be the year fine food retail looks closer to home for drinks pairings too. “More and more shops, including La Fromagerie, are carrying a good amount of stock of cider now. They are perfect with cheese at Christmas. Well, any time of year really. I mean 100% crafted cider from juice. There are some brilliant ones coming out of Devon, Somerset and Herefordshire, made by people who have as much crediblity as cheesemakers. If you go back over 100 years, many of the farmhouses in Somerset made cheese in one room and cider in another. There’s a real affinity between the two. What better time of year to celebrate that affinity?”
Alex Hunt, The Cheese Locker: “Christmas and the general festive season are times where family, friends and loved ones get together to celebrate and reflect on the past year and look forward to the future. Food, especially cheese, is often seen as a luxury, and representative of good times. By having a large and varied range of cheese as well as cheeses that are particularly suitable for the festive period, you can enhance the experience of customers and ensure that those memories are ever so more perfect and everlasting.
“As many other retailers will likely echo, it is important to plan early. Even if it is just pondering about the coming Christmas six months before. Keep in mind aspects of changes within the economy, and the changes that your wholesalers are going through. It’s crucial to stay connected with them more and more as the festive season closes in.
“Also, communicate with your customers. Many will have already started thinking about Christmas; especially when it comes to cheese.
“And watch your growth. Keep in mind and consider the number of new customers you have acquired since last Christmas, and make steps to get ahead through communication via online systems, pre-orders and discussions with neighbouring businesses. It’s near impossible to get it perfect, but I would say it’s better to have a bit too much cheese than lose out on sales.”
Alex’s Christmas stocklist: Delice de Bourgogne, P’tit Valley, buffalo milk Camembert, scooping Gorgonzola, Godminster Vintage, Jacquin Buchette Aux Fleurs (one of 2022’s bestsellers), Mayfield Swiss
Johnny McDowell, Indie Fude: “So many customers will only splash out or indulge on cheese at Christmas, so it’s important to cater to all tastes, that way you might snare some new real cheese lovers for the future. Maybe have a try with some festive flavourings yourself, such as truffling your own brie, or infusing your Stilton or favourite blue with Port. Also, pre-built cheeseboards are a must, and will help those customers struggling to make up their own mind, or those wanting a cheesy gift!”
Johnny’s Christmas stocklist: Young Buck (last year we infused a few rounds with Buckfast Tonic wine and called it Buckie Buck), Single Rose Brie-style cheese by Ballylisk (we truffled ours up last year for a real sense of Christmas luxury)
Caroline Blaydon, Wildgoose Fine Foods: “Amongst all the culinary traditions at Christmas, there is one that no festive celebration should be without – the Christmas cheeseboard!
“Cheese has a long history of being associated with Christmas. In centuries gone by, before the advent of refrigeration, its long shelf life allowed diners to enjoy a feast of varieties during the winter months.
“For the majority of small retailers, the week leading up to Christmas is the busiest and most lucrative time of the year and there are a number of ways we can maximise the selling opportunities.
“Firstly having a diverse selection. This is the cornerstone of a successful festive season. Offer customers a wide variety, ranging from those traditionally found on the festive cheeseboard (from mild and creamy Camembert and Stilton, to aged Cheddar – to more unsusual varetiies which add an element of excitement and discovery for them to impress their guests.
“Next, think about creating gift sets. Presentation is key when looking to maximuse sales. Design and prepare festive cheese boxes which showcase an assortment of cheeses, along with complementary accompaniments such as crackers, chutneys and, if licsensed, a bottle of wine or Port. Beautifully-wrapped sets are perfect presents for loved ones, or business customers looking to purchase staff gifts.
“Consider hosting tasting events at your store and, if possible, invite a local cheesemaker to come in and talk to your customers about their cheese. Again, if you’re licensed, offer wine pairings too. These interactive events encourage customers to be more adventurous.”
Caroline’s alternative Christmas stocklist: Old Weydeland Gouda (a fabulous alternative to Cheddar, aged for over 1,000 days with a deep, nutty, caramel flavours and subtle crunch of salt crystals); Oxford Blue (described as a French-style English blue – soft, creamy and moist with aromatic, tangy, spicy qualities); Wigmore (a soft, hand-washed curd cheese with sweet, fruity tones that mature to hints of burnt caramel and nuts); Redwood Smoked (a firm, mild Cheddar, aged for nine months, smoked and dusted with paprika for a complex, savoury flavour with a hint of spice and smoke); Oxford Isis (a beautiful British alternative to Epoisses, washed in Oxford Honey Mead which gives the cheese its fantastic colour and sweet taste)