Free digital copy
Get Speciality Food magazine delivered to your inbox FREEGet your free copy
It’s been a difficult few years for cheesemongers up and down the country, with the Covid-19 pandemic forcing many businesses to shut their doors in 2020, Brexit bringing layers of red tape in 2021 and the cost-of-living crisis wreaking havoc on the economy and energy prices this year.
Rising consumer interest
British cheese is not new by any means, and in the last 50 years, the sector has seen a resurgence. But it has only been over the past few years that consumer interest in sourcing cheese from local makers and swapping their European favourites for British alternatives has soared.
As Stephen Fleming, owner of George and Joseph, explains, “Our focus from when we started 10 years ago was on Yorkshire and then British-produced cheeses. We’ve seen over that time a real increase in interest, combined with an influx of new British cheeses coming to the market.”
This is something Jen Grimstone-Jones, co-owner of Cheese Etc., The Pangbourne Cheese Shop, has also noticed. “We have seen a huge increase in our British cheeses over the last few years. When we took over the shop in 2015 our counter was almost 50:50 British to Continental but now it is much nearer to 70:30. I think British cheese has become so much more varied over the last few years and the quality is outstanding. It’s easy to promote something which tastes great!”
“Campaigns like the British Cheese Weekender have also highlighted the wonderful cheeses we produce here in the UK and I think the British public have become much more aware of where their food comes from.”
But what has caused consumers to turn to British cheese? For Owen Davies, managing director of Ty Caws, “There are a few key changes that have helped shape the British cheese industry as we see it today, including an increase in better quality British cheese being made. Historic British cheese makers have developed and perfected techniques whilst we’ve also seen an increase in new cheesemakers bringing with a great variety of new British cheese to enjoy.
“Support through organisations such as the Academy of Cheese and awards such as the British Cheese Awards and the World Cheese Awards have helped boost awareness and profile of British cheese. Additionally, British cheesemakers have taken to self-promotion and have helped boost their own awareness within the consumer market; many have direct customer experience and appreciate the need for good marketing.”
For Oli Smith, owner of The Bristol Cheesemonger, the biggest impact on British cheese sales over the last few years was the pandemic. He explains, “Despite the challenges, both in production and route to market, a herculean effort was made to promote and support British cheese and many producers had some of the biggest sales figures they’d ever seen. As a result, I think a huge number of people have been tasting high-quality British cheese for the first time and have absolutely loved it.
“The cost-of-living crisis is going to be devastating for people personally, which is of course the most important priority, but it’s also going to be a massive challenge small for businesses like ours, and the people we buy cheese from. We have always prided ourselves on being accessible to everybody but that is starting to come under pressure.”
The Brexit effect
Brexit has caused havoc for many cheesemongers importing European cheeses, with delays, shortages and extra red tape resulting from the break from the EU. But while it made filling shelves and display cabinets with French classics and Spanish delights more difficult, it gave British cheese the opportunity to shine brighter than ever.
Jen is all too familiar with these hurdles. “In the first few months after Brexit, our Continental cheeses were taking longer to get to us and so people switched to more of the British cheeses as we had a reliable stock. The supply of French cheeses is now more consistent but most of our customers have stuck with the British alternatives.”
For Stephen, “Brexit has – and still does – affected the flow of Continental cheeses into the UK. The availability of some Continental lines is much more unpredictable than it was pre-Brexit. We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve always been able to offer British alternatives to many Continental styles, so I would say in some cases that has increased sales of those products.”
The idea of becoming independent has also led to a national desire to produce and buy more of our own food. As Sunit Mehta, managing director at Rowliffe, explains, “Following Brexit, there is a strong consumer movement to support local, and this extends to choosing British over imported. Consumers’ preference to buy ‘British’ shows in the demand that we see in the product ranges that are being produced and the requests from our retail customers for such products.”
But it seems that for the most part, fine food shoppers are passionate about British produce, no matter where they stand on politics. Oli tells Speciality Food, “Bristol was a very pro-EU town, but it is a city that is absolutely passionate about sustainability and supporting local producers. Our customers love buying local and British cheeses but no more so because of Brexit.
“Once in a while, we’ll have a customer who tells us they no longer buy French cheese because of the politics of the negotiations but that is very much the exception. The biggest impact Brexit has had is the increase in costs to our producers, even before the cost-of-living crisis.”