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No cheese is more synonymous with Christmas than blue cheese, but this year small producers are warning that customers may be facing a limited selection.
Billy Kevan, CEO of Colston Bassett Dairy, which makes a Blue Stilton and a Shropshire Blue, explains that when the pandemic first hit and independent businesses stopped trading, demand dropped overnight and all the stock that the dairy had maturing for future sales was at risk.
“We made the decision to stop production. This lasted 10 weeks and amounted to a reduction in our annual production of over 10,000 cheeses,” Billy said. “We are usually at full production and therefore could not make up the shortfall when demand increased.” The increase in sales was thanks to initiatives across the industry to boost British farmhouse cheeses, including Neal’s Yard Dairy’s British cheese boxes, which were supported by Jamie Oliver.
However, in order to pick up production of Blue Stilton, Billy had to make less Shropshire Blue, and therefore he said this cheese will be limited to select customers only. “We are slowly getting back to more normal stock levels, but as the cheese has to mature for eight weeks, our Christmas sales will be lower than usual.”
And Christmas sales are vital to the business. “We sell 30% of our annual turnover in a seven-week period, and our supply chain customers also rely on Christmas sales. This can be the difference between survival or not,” he said.
Blue cheeses won’t be impacted by shortages across the board – as Joe recently told Neal’s Yard, larger Stilton makers are better able to cope with uncertainty. The Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association has confirmed that its producers are not facing any stock shortages. But the impact on smaller cheesemakers that were forced to make tough calls over the summer could be significant.
Joe Schneider, who makes Stichelton, is also reliant on Christmas sales. “Indeed, 25% of our yearly sales are in December,” he said. Just like Colston Bassett Dairy, when the pandemic first hit the UK, sales of Stichelton flatlined.
“We sold nothing for three weeks – not one piece of cheese. This was worrying for us because the age profile of blue cheese is short and unforgiving, it ripens fast and goes over the top quickly if you don’t sell it,” he explained.
Because Stitchelton isn’t sold through supermarkets, the closure of the hospitality industry hit the business hard and led to the decision to halt production. “Lots of small shops, delis, and restaurants were closed overnight. It took time for those shops to adapt. Since we had a mountain of cheese at risk of rotting and no sales, it made no sense to add to the pile by making more, so we stopped production and furloughed everyone for nine weeks,” Joe said.
“When July rolled around and it was time to think about Christmas production, everyone was still unsure what Christmas would look like. Would there be another lockdown? (Turns out there was). Would unemployment be high? Would shops still be open? Restaurants? There were so many unknowns that we took a conservative guess at the situation and made less than usual to avoid piling up cheese again that might not find a home,” he continued.
By September, when things were looking up for Christmas, it was too late, he said. “The cheese wouldn’t have enough time to ripen.” Joe said that he has tried to allocate the numbers of cheeses fairly, but production levels are still below normal due to continued uncertainty.
Although the national campaigns have now quieted down, Britain’s small farmhouse cheesemakers will remain in a difficult position as long as Covid-19 continues to disrupt daily life. While many have shown resilience and innovation in the face of this year’s challenges, continued support will be critical in keeping businesses running throughout the pandemic.
Image courtesy of Colston Bassett Dairy