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
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