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Cheesemongers’ busiest season is nearly upon us, and following a year which saw many new customers welcomed into the artisan cheese fold, showcasing the best of the classics and lesser-known varieties will be of the utmost importance. As orders are placed and Christmas-themed displays are dreamt up, Speciality Food asks the experts how to prepare for the festive season in 2021.
Come Christmastime, cheesemongers know that seasonal favourites like Stilton or clothbound Cheddar can essentially sell themselves. But bringing fresh eyes to classic cheeses can result in a welcome uplift in sales. “Stilton is well known to be at its best at Christmas due to the late summer pastures that the cows graze, giving the milk a richness unparalleled at other times of the year,” explains Robin Skailes, chairman of the Stilton Cheesemakers Association and director of Cropwell Bishop Creamery.
A trio of Stilton, a hard crumbly cheese such as Lancashire and a West Country Farmhouse Cheddar is a must-have, but when it comes to accompaniments, try straying from the beaten path this year. “With Stilton most people automatically think of Port,” Robin says, but he has some other suggestions up his sleeve. “How about a Sauterne dessert wine? Riesling is a little different too, and it pairs really well due to its nice, crisp taste and finish.” Retailers can also boost the value of Stilton by explaining to customers how it can be used outside of the cheeseboard. “Stilton is a versatile ingredient which can inspire and brighten up everyday dishes – from soups to souffles, risottos, salads, sandwiches and burgers,” Robin adds.
In addition to Stilton, other seasonal bestsellers at George & Joseph include Brie and Wensleydale. “We stick to our year-round favourites which are Baron Bigod, Stichelton and Richard II Wensleydale,” says founder Stephen Fleming. “We also get through a lot of Vacherin Mont D’Or, which is on perfect form at Christmas.” With blues like Stichelton, Stephen says retailers can get sales buzzing by pairing with Pedro Ximenez sherry. “The super-sticky, concentrated raisin flavours of the sherry is a great foil for the saltiness of the Stichelton,” he says. And with decadent Baron Bigod, he suggests Single Variety Co Fireflame Chilli Jam. “Not too much heat from the chilli jam, but a great contrast with the creaminess of the Brie.” Another favourite accompaniment is Rosebud Preserves Fig Chutney. “It pairs brilliantly with most cheeses, so it’s a good all-round choice to put with a cheeseboard,” Stephen says.
From stocking unusual, striking goats’ cheese pyramids and rolls from the likes of St Tola Ash or Cerney Ash, to creating convenient grab-and-go hampers, there are plenty of ways to catch customers’ eyes this year. “We find that over Christmas people like to be a bit more extravagant with their cheese purchases than they would on a regular weekly cheese shop,” says Fraser MacLellan of The East London Cheese Board and Froth & Rind cheese shop in London. Ahead of the holidays, he stocks up on Gruyère washed in red wine and truffle Brie.
Traditional cheeses can also be ramped up with a bit of theatre that gets customers talking to one another, Stephen says. “We definitely find the ‘theatrical’ nature of selling some cheeses – like the large cutting versions of Vacherin Mont D’Or and Gorgonzola Dolce – works,” he says. “We have these on the top of our counter and spoon out the Gorgonzola. Whenever we do this we find customers selling to each other – ‘what’s that you’re getting?’ – which really helps create excitement!”
“We also find that displays are a great focal point,” Fraser adds, “so we’ll have whole Comté, Cheddars, and large wedges all arranged for the customer to see. We make sure we give lots of tastings too, both to help the sale but also to help the customer make an informed choice. We want the cheese we sell to make people happy so it’s imperative that they leave the shop with cheese they like or want.”
Avril Molloy, founder of the Irish School of Cheese urges cheesemongers to take their offering up another notch with a Christmas cheeseboard event – held either online or in person. “You could have quite a broad reach by advertising it on social media and in your shop. Have one of your mongers on a video, or even circulate a recorded video on YouTube, to give customers ideas of how to put together a really nice Christmas cheeseboard,” she says.
While Stephen encourages customers to “go big or go home” with regards to how much cheese they buy – “We always get some customers who buy their Christmas cheese, then come in the next day looking a bit sheepish, saying they didn’t buy enough or they already ate it all” – when it comes to choosing what to stock, less can be more. Avril also warns cheesemongers against adding too many novelties to their range, such as cheesemaking kits or raclettes. “My experience is that unless you’re in the centre of London or a very busy city, they don’t sell that well. People really just want the cheese and the food.” Instead, stock up on lesser-known, local-to-you varieties this year. “People will latch onto the local cheeses even more this year,” Avril says. “People want to shop locally, and they may not realise that there’s a beautiful UK or Irish cheese similar to one that might have come from France.”
Stephen agrees that the ‘less is more’ mentality can be a winning sales technique. “We try to steer customers away from buying lots of small pieces and towards buying more of three to five cheeses. We stick to our year-round range, so we don’t bring in cheeses that we’re not familiar with at Christmas. This means we are selling cheeses that we’re knowledgeable about, so we sell more that way, rather than putting on loads of new products just for Christmas.”
However, gifting can be a lucrative business for those who are able to tap into it. “We put together Christmas cheese selections,” Fraser says. “These are very popular in the shop. We add some ribbon and bows to make them look a bit more gift-like. We also have a cheese and beer box where customers get three cheeses, each of which is paired with a beer, and the box contains two each of the paired beers. This is a very popular gift.” And with the clock already ticking, Stephen says having example gift hampers made up can help secure sales ahead of the Christmas rush. “The power of suggestion works here – we take the hassle out of gifting.”