Step aside, Stil­ton. It’s the new Bri­tish blues ex­plo­sion

BREAK­ING THE MOULD Softer, milder cheeses are fol­low­ing in a sim­i­lar vein to the fes­tive clas­sic, says Pa­trick Mcguigan

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - The Sunday Cook -

Christ­mas wouldn’t be Christ­mas with­out Stil­ton. But in news that will have tra­di­tion­al­ists chok­ing on their port, the “king of cheese” is com­ing un­der threat from a new breed of Bri­tish blues. In­spired by the suc­cess of Con­ti­nen­tal cheeses, such as Cam­bo­zola and Saint Agur, Bri­tish cheese­mak­ers are cre­at­ing in­no­va­tive new blues that are muscling their way on to the Christ­mas cheese­board.

“This is crazy, silly sea­son for us – it’s full steam ahead from now un­til Jan­uary,” says a sur­pris­ingly un­flus­tered Caro­line Bell, joint man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of pi­o­neer­ing blue cheese com­pany Shep­herd’s Purse in York­shire. Set up in the Nineties by phar­ma­cist-turned-cheese­maker Judy Bell (Caro­line’s mother), the busi­ness is at the van­guard of the Bri­tish blues ex­plo­sion, pro­duc­ing 210 tons of blue cheese a year, in­clud­ing the sheep’s milk Mrs Bell’s Blue, and two soft, vel­vety cow’s milk cheeses, Harrogate Blue and York­shire Blue.

“Out­side of Stil­ton there wasn’t a huge amount of choice for Bri­tish blues when we started,” says Bell. “We saw a gap in the mar­ket and started on a long jour­ney of learn­ing how dif­fi­cult it is to make blue cheese. There are so many vari­ables in cheese­mak­ing, but when you add Peni­cil­lium roque­forti [the mould that makes cheese blue] you bring a whole other layer of chaos.”

En­cour­ag­ing an even spread of the liv­ing, breath­ing blue mould is a fiendishly tricky task, she ex­plains, de­pen­dent on acid­ity, tem­per­a­ture and hu­mid­ity. “They are softer, more del­i­cate cheeses,” she says. “We use dif­fer­ent strains of blue mould, which aren’t as spicy and pow­er­ful, so they are mel­low and rounded.”

It’s a flavour pro­file that has hit a sweet spot with the pub­lic. Sales have grown by more than 10 per cent a year thanks to list­ings in M&S, Tesco and Mor­risons. Sales of Stil­ton are down 3.5 per cent in the 12 months to Novem­ber 2018, ac­cord­ing to Kan­tar, the data firm. In the same pe­riod, soft and creamy Cam­bo­zola grew 18 per cent.

Third-gen­er­a­tion Stil­ton-maker Robin Skailes at Crop­well Bishop in Not­ting­hamshire is all too aware of the trends. “Stil­ton is not a grow­ing cheese, which is a bit of a worry,” he says. “It’s suf­fered from com­pe­ti­tion from much larger Euro­pean pro­duc­ers, who can pro­mote their prod­ucts more ag­gres­sively in su­per­mar­kets, and new Bri­tish blues have nib­bled away at sales in delis and cheese shops.”

In the spirit of “if you can’t beat them, join them”, Skailes de­cided to be­come part of the blue revo­lu­tion five years ago, cre­at­ing the Gor­gonzo­laesque Beau­vale. The soft cow’s milk cheese has a squidgy tex­ture and mild creamy flavour that has won it sev­eral awards and a place in the cheese coun­ters of Waitrose and Har­rods.

“Mar­ket re­search sug­gests that 35 is the age when peo­ple start to try Stil­ton, while younger peo­ple pre­fer softer, milder blues,” he says. “That was one of the rea­sons for Beau­vale. We were miss­ing out on a huge part of the mar­ket.”

The sheer num­ber of new Bri­tish blues means the mar­ket is be­com­ing crowded, says Cheshire-based ar­ti­san cheese­maker Claire Burt. “There’s def­i­nitely more com­pe­ti­tion now, with lots of peo­ple mak­ing good cheese,” she says. “It’s tough, but ex­cit­ing.”

Burt’s Cheese is a tiny player, mak­ing just 7.5 tons a

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