There’s a positive association with buying British. It’s been touted as a way to support local farmers as well as decrease one’s carbon footprint. But is this emphasis on the best of Britain really translating into increased demand?
At least when it comes to cheese, the case may have been slightly exaggerated. According to David Lockwood, managing director of Neal’s Yard Dairy, people aren’t buying as much British cheese as “the mythology” suggests.
“I look at what’s gone on in supermarkets, particularly somewhere like Waitrose, where they seem to be less and less interested in the really good British cheeses. They seem to think that it’s difficult to sell them,” notes Lockwood. “I see the cheese counters becoming sushi bars. From that I do question supermarket industry belief in British cheese.”
Despite his concern about what’s happening in the retail chains, Lockwood does believe there is a boom in public support for territorial cheese. His view is supported by Kantar data, which showed that sales of territorial cheeses are up 4.6% in the year to June 2019.
Considering Neal’s Yard Dairy has signed a 35-year lease on an enormous space underneath the Bermondsey railway arches, the company clearly has high hopes for growth.
So where will success come from for the esteemed cheese seller and supplier?
What Brits buy
The majority of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s sales come from domestic wholesale – predominantly restaurants and retail, as well as some food halls and caterers. This is also the area where the company has seen the biggest growth. Roughly 35% of sales comes from exports, while a further 22% comes from Neal’s Yard Dairy’s shops.
Adding delivery runs to increase the reach of the brand has been beneficial to the bottom line, but most important of all has been, unsurprisingly, the cheese itself.
Wheeling in steady sales are stilton and cheddar – though this tends to be skewed by exports, which disproportionately favour these British celebrities.
Within the UK, the spread is more evenly split among Red Leicester, Lancashire, Chester and Caerphilly.
“Another area we see a lot of growth is the new-wave cheeses – essentially, when you’re making a European cheese here. A lot of the goat cheeses, those Camembert-style cheeses,” notes Lockwood. “That’s changed in a big way. We’re seeing more and more of that in the mix here.”
In fact, so popular has the Brie-style Baron Bigod been with consumers that it has pushed the French Brie du Meaux off the counter.
“Likewise, the Tunworth, which is our Camembert-style cheese – we sell loads of it.”
How Brits buy
Just as the British palate has changed when it comes to cheese, so has the way they purchase the dairy delight.
Before, people would buy big hunks of their favourites; now, consumers are more likely to stock up on a wider variety in small portions.
“A lot of the new people into the [cheese] market will make the smaller, softer, more continental in style cheeses, at least initially, because it’s easier from a cash-flow standpoint, you don’t have to wait around a long time for them to age and for you to sell them,” notes Lockwood.
As a more established business, however, Neal’s Yard Dairy isn’t afraid to stock cheeses that need a bit more maturing. Recent additions to the portfolio include Pitchfork Cheddar, Whin Yates Wensleydale and the upcoming Stoneback Wensleydale.
Bet on blue
Like Matthew Hall, commercial manager at Butlers Farmhouse Cheeses, Lockwood foresees a lot of opportunity in the blue cheese market, “whether Stilton or another blue that is historically somewhat accurate for England. That’s the big hole right now.”
According to the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, only 58% of cheese available in the UK is domestically sourced, but Brexit could incentivise reliance on local product more.
Some, however, have warned that considering the amount of milk the UK imports, leaving the EU could imperil the industry – not to mention the issues that could arise due to shortages and delays related to cheese processing equipment from the continent.
Lockwood is cautiously optimistic about the state of the cheese market, despite the sizable chunk of Neal’s Yard Dairy’s sales that come from export, but only time will tell if the rind will come off the wheel.
Three to try
Baron Bigod – a Brie-style cheese described as having a “crumbly texture at the core and a silky breakdown at the rind.” Made on Fen Farm in Suffolk, it’s been popping up in high-end restaurants around the UK and is also an ice cream flavour at the new conveyor-belt-based Pick & Cheese spot in London.
Innes Brick – Raw goat milk forms the basis of this cheese, which has a distinctive ‘geotrichum’ rind. “Smooth and creamy in texture with sweet notes of hazelnut combined,” it is exclusively matured at Neal’s Yard Dairy.
Brefu Bach – “Moussy, light and fluffy,” this raw sheep’s milk cheese is made in Wales. Traditional Welsh breeds supply the dairy, and it was named the best new cheese at the 2016 British Cheese Awards.