29 November 2018, 09:34 AM
  • With British blue cheese growing in stature around the world, John Bensalhia discovers the secrets of its appeal
What is behind the enduring appeal of blue cheese?

British cheese producers have reasons to be cheerful. In a report by The Guardian, statistics from HMRC found that the value of cheese exports rose by 23% in 2017 to £615m. The report cited impressive results for cheese exports to both the Philippines (an increase of 27%) and China (which saw a leap from 2015’s exports of 49 tonnes worth of cheese to 786 tonnes in 2017).

While there are a number of reasons for this surge in interest (eg: devaluation of the currency), different attitudes in countries around the world are creating a positive rise in demand for British cheese. A good example of this is the Blue Cheese, with Stilton being the sector to see the fastest growth. It’s a kind of cheese that the report says isn’t so easy to source in countries such as France, which are taking more notice of quality British cheeses.

The reputation of British blue cheeses around the world is also definitely on the up. Philip Stansfield, owner and founder of the Cornish Cheese Company recalls the interest in Cornish Blue from food fairs around the world. “In the last year we have been to Food Fairs in California and New York and have witnessed a great deal of interest in Cornish Blue. We anticipate a significant growth in exports over the next two to three years as cheese lovers around the world continue their appreciation of British artisan blue cheeses such as Cornish Blue.”

Mark Hardy, director of Sussex’s High Weald Dairy Ltd, notes that positive global reaction to British blue cheese can be attributed to the wide range of products on offer. “British blue cheese has a great reputation around the world, if nothing else, just for the sheer diversity of types now available, made from all four types of milk.”

While The Fine Cheese Company has found that British blue cheese is famous all around the world, one name is at the front of everyone’s mind. “It is always Stilton,” says Ruth Raskin, The Fine Cheese Company’s Cheese Care Manager. “In some countries, the cheese enthusiasts we meet will even name the Stilton. Colston Bassett is a big favourite, and deservedly so.”

Colston Bassett Stilton is top of the The Fine Cheese Company’s list of best-selling blue cheeses. Ruth Raskin explains that the reason for this is that it is a consistently excellent cheese. “People know they are in safe hands when they choose it for their cheeseboard. The texture is sublime, so rich and creamy, and the blue veining brings a beautifully balanced gentle spice.”

“As a maker of PDO Stilton, we are fortunate that our cheese is widely recognised internationally, and we continue to grow our export sales,” says Billy Kevan, dairy manager, Colston Bassett. “In the past few years, there have been a lot of new blue cheeses emerging in the UK market. For these smaller, less established producers it can be difficult to gain a presence on the world stage.”

Success at international competitions can help. “For Colston Bassett, our award wins have help to showcase our consistently high standard of cheesemaking: something notoriously difficult to achieve with blue cheese.”

Wide appeal
Colston Bassett Dairy produces Stilton and Shropshire Blue. “Both cheeses are made with milk sourced from member farmers, located within 1.5 mile radius of the dairy,” says Billy. “By maintaining traditional making practices such as hand ladling the curds, we ensure exceptional quality and consistency. It’s these attributes that have enabled us to build a loyal customer base through the independents.”

There are other great blue cheeses nipping at Colston Bassett’s heels. “Bath Blue is the first choice of many of our customers,” says Ruth Raskin. “And Beauvale is popular with those looking for a softer, gentler style of blue cheese.”

Cornish Blue is the main headline at the Cornish Cheese Company. Philip Stansfield attributes its ever increasing popularity is down to its mild, creamy taste. “Many people have a love / hate relationship with blue cheese but we like to think that Cornish Blue appeals to those who wouldn’t normally consider a blue cheese.”

The same principle applies to High Weald Dairy’s Brighton Blue: an award winning, mellow blue cheese that the dairy has been making for over six years. “it is now one of our best selling cheeses,” says Mark Hardy. “It is a light-tasting, summer-eating blue, not too strong or bitter, great for those customers who say that they do not like blue cheese.” The Brighton Blue won a Super Gold rating at the 2017 World Cheese Awards as well as a Gold at Nantwich, proving to be one of the most popular blue cheeses in the South East.

The latest blue cheese offering from the Cornish Cheese Company has also won major acclaim and fast sales in a short space of time. Launched in 2017, the Cornish Nanny is a rare example of blue goat’s cheese. “We have been surprised by how quickly sales have grown, clearly helped by winning Gold at the International Cheese awards in both 2017 and 2018,” says Philip Stansfield. “Blue goat’s cheeses are quite rare so we are looking forward to continued growth in sales.”

Happy discoveries
One of the joys of the cheese industry is making brand new discoveries. “There are so many talented new cheesemakers starting up now,” says Ruth Raskin.” One example of a happy discovery made by The Fine Cheese Company is Burt’s Blue. “Claire Burt makes this rich, soft blue cheese in Cheshire, but it has started to travel far afield,” explains Ruth. “It’s a regular on the orders we send to Australia.”

An exciting new cheese is Renegade Monk made by Marcus Fergusson. Ruth says that although it is made with blue cultures, it is often vein-less when ripe, as Marcus develops its silky paste through regular washing. “Marcus started making only 200 cheeses a week, so Renegade Monk was heavily rationed, but many of our overseas customers have already tried it and are looking forward to putting it on their shelves once Marcus has finished building his new, larger cheesemaking facilities.”

Also new to The Fine Cheese Company’s range are Sparkenhoe Blue and Sparkenhoe Shropshire Blue. “They are made by Will Clarke, son of Jo and David Clarke, who are famous for reviving traditionally-made, clothbound, raw milk Red Leicester,” explains Ruth. “Will has recently returned to the family farm to take up the challenge of making these raw milk blue cheeses. They can be notoriously tricky to make, but Will has proved himself more than up to the task.”

Sparkenhoe Blue is new, but made to a traditional, local recipe. The paste is compact and still a little crumbly, while the blue veins meander through narrow fissures between the curds. The result is a mellow, buttery and rich blue cheese. “Sparkenhoe Shropshire Blue is made to the same recipe as his Sparkenhoe Blue, but Will adds annatto to the milk, just as is done with Sparkenhoe Red Leicester,” says Ruth. “This gives the cheese its glorious colour. The paste ranges from a blush, peach tone to a deeper hue next to the blue veins, as the curd begins to break down. The taste is buttery and mellow with a gentle spice to finish.”

While the Sparkenhoe Blues are in their infancy, The Fine Cheese Company has high hopes for their future. “They have been welcomed with open mouths by the customers who have tasted them. The Shropshire Blue was a big hit with the international crowd at Salone del Gusto in Turin in September and the French at SIAL in Paris were just as enthusiastic.”

In our multicultural society, let’s not forget that other countries’ blue cheeses continue to hold plenty of appeal. Picos de Europa is one of Brindisa’s most popular Spanish Blue Cheeses. “It’s a real all-rounder, because it is visually interesting with its distinctive maple leaf wrapped exterior and dense blue veining,” says James Robinson, Product Trainer, Brindisa. “Made with a blend of cows’ and goats’ milk, it has a creamy, mushroomy aroma, with a nutty and sometimes spicy flavour. Its third major selling point is that, for a cheese of its quality, Picos de Europa remains competitively priced.”

Brindisa’s most recent addition, Peñoceo, is a goats’ milk cheese from the company’s own supplier, La Peral. “Peñoceo is the latest cheese from a third generation cheese-making family, based in Asturias,” says James. “This is one of the regions known as ‘Green Spain’ because of the abundance of pasture for grazing. La Peral has a great reputation, so this cheese has been holding its own alongside more established Spanish blues.”

Enduring appeal
So what is behind the enduring appeal of blue cheese? Mark Hardy says that the popularity is in the complexity of the taste. “There are so many styles out there now, it’s just a question of finding the one you prefer as a consumer.”

As an all-round cheese, Philip Stansfield concludes that Cornish Blue offers a taste that appeals to everyone. “For Cornish Blue the appeal is the mild, creamy taste as well as the provenance. All the milk that goes into Cornish Blue is produced on our farm on the edge of Bodmin Moor by our herd of Holstein Friesians.

“Many blue cheeses don’t appeal to families as they have a big blue metallic hit but Cornish Blue has a full flavour which makes it much more appealing as an all-round cheese.”

Philip adds that another reason for blue cheese’s popularity is that it was created naturally and remains traditional, unlike many other cheeses which have recently gone down the additive route.

“Blue cheeses tend to have big personalities!” comments James Robinson. “They combine salt, spice, and creaminess to create bold flavour profiles which really stand out.” James adds that blue cheese is surprisingly versatile and great for pairing with fruit, nuts, honey and a range of drinks. “In the UK, we tend to grow up with Stilton at Christmas – which sparks consumers’ interest to explore blue alternatives. No cheese board is complete without a quality blue cheese and retailers should provide a number of British and Continental options to showcase their variety.”

Billy Kevan agrees that the association between Stilton and Christmas remains strong, with the blue cheese being an ingrained part of festive dining traditions. “However, we continue to encourage consumers to try our cheese throughout the year and in a variety of different ways. This has included the development of two recipe booklets that consider seasonality or international inspired flavours to help people look beyond the obvious.”

“Blue cheese is indispensable to many of our customers,” says Ruth Raskin. “A cheeseboard with no blue cheese would be bereft, a sacrilege even. It is the pinnacle of the board. Those blue veins bring flavours that no other cheese can. The delight of tasting the different tones that the cheese boasts is not one that many cheese enthusiasts would wish to miss.” “The rind may influence the flavour, bringing earthy or perhaps savoury aspects, while the creamy paste, broken down by the moulds growing through the channels left by piercing, may have an altogether sweeter character. And finally, the spicy, mineral tones of the veins themselves bring everything together in glorious harmony.”