We eat our way through £2.5bn worth of cheese in the UK. That's 530,000t a year, or 28g per head per day. And sales are growing at 3% a year. Not bad for a mature market.
But puns aside, the statistics also demonstrate that cheese counters are no longer paved with endless slabs of yellow, anonymous cheddar. The stranglehold that cheddar had on the UK has been gradually loosening as imported speciality cheeses, new and traditional British cheeses, and blended cheeses with exotic new flavours, take bigger and bigger bites into the market.
Today, cheddar accounts for 55% of sales but faces stiff competition. According to Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board, the second most important cheese produced in the UK after cheddar is now mozzarella. And it's not just the stretchy stuff destined for pizzas that we make, either. There are now several UK cheese makers producing authentic Italian-style mozzarellas for Italian restaurants and delis.
There has also been a revival in traditional English regional cheeses. From the cheshires and the double gloucesters to the red leicesters and wensleydales, territorial cheeses now account for about 10% of the UK market. British blues (mainly stilton) take a further 2%. And blended cheeses (white stilton with apricots through to 'Mexicana' cheddar with peppers and chillies and even chocolate cheese) represent another 2%, while a whole host of very localised speciality cheeses as well as British-made French look-alikes also make up 2%. On top of that, we import more than 200,000t of foreign speciality cheeses every year.
General de Gaulle of France complained that he couldn't be expected to govern a country with 246 kinds of cheese. Only 246? Britain produces over 400 different cheeses, plus another 200 or so blended varieties. The British cheese industry has learned, like Elton John, that its future lies beyond the yellow brick road.
"If you talk to consumers, they don't think about processed cheese, hard cheese, semi-hard cheese, soft cheese, rind-washed or mould-ripened cheese," says White. "Instead, they think about the way they use cheese and when they are going to use it and for what." He says supermarkets and retailers are now beginning to reflect that in the way they lay out the cheese counter.
You now find 'convenience cheese' -- anything that makes cheese easier and quicker to use, such as grated, sliced, cubed, and crumbled, all ready to stuff into sandwiches, place on toast, pop on a pizza, or top off a salad -- next door to a growing array of 'snacking' products, ranging from dippers and dunkers to cheesy strings and animal shapes. Then you've got the 'replacement cheeses' -- the staples you buy every week -- and the speciality cheese section -- including the British blues and imported cheeses.
"I like to think that the yellow brick road is disappearing," says White.
Roger Seaman, national accounts controller for Ilchester Cheese, the leader in the UK blended cheese market, has no doubt that consumers are moving on. "They are trading up to better quality cheeses, to stronger flavours." And he sees blended cheeses as offering the cheese consumer a step along the road to the complex flavours and textures of the more specialised varieties. He points out that the £47m blended cheese market is growing at a phenomenal 19% a year.
Bob Farrand, organiser of the World Cheese Awards being held in Olympia, London this month agrees. "The main growth seems to be in the more mature cheeses, such as cheddar, with descriptions such as 'reserve', or 'vintage'. Consumers seem to be moving on to the stronger varieties. And there is enormous growth in cheeses with additives." But he warns British cheesemakers not to be complacent. The best blue cheese in last year's World Cheese Awards was American -- "a fabulous blue called Rogue River Blue". It was, says Farrand, an exact mirror of the way blue cheeses have been developing in Europe -- softer, and creamier. "They've found a lot of favour with a younger, particularly female, audience."
So what does this mean for new product development? Mark Beavon, general manager of Joseph Heler, the UK's largest regional cheese maker, says his customers are looking for convenience, flavour, and functionality, at the right price. The majority of Heler's cheeses are sold into the ingredients market and Beavon expects more ready meals to incorporate cheese to enhance the flavour, colour and performance of the product.
He also sees the growing trend towards healthier eating having a big impact on the cheese industry as it struggles to develop successful low-fat, low-sodium alternatives. Heler currently makes a range of low-fat and low-sodium cheeses for the ingredients market -- from a red leicester with less than 3% fat to a low-fat cheddar (3%). But it isn't easy, says Jonathan Cope, commercial manager. "If you look at our low-fat product, what we have got now is dramatically different to the one we had 18 months ago. It has evolved." As if to prove the point, Heler won the low-fat section at this year's Nantwich International Cheese Show with its 3% fat mozzarella.
Cope also expects to see probiotics beginning to appear in cheeses as well as other health additives. And there will be greater use of new starter cultures and enzymes to cut ripening times and production costs. "You can now get quite a flavourful cheddar in nine months whereas five years ago it would have taken 16."
The snacking market is still, he believes, largely untapped. "We will see a lot of cheese for eating 'on the go'. It won't be cheese on its own, it will be cheese with other items in the same pack to produce a complete snack."
Seaman at Ilchester Cheese believes the success of blended cheeses and the growing recognition of the health benefits of cheese, offer opportunities for brand extension products. Indeed, the first cheese ever produced by Ilchester was a Somerset cheddar with Worthington E beer. "We certainly explore using brands in our cheeses," he says. (Look out for a certain Irish whiskey cream liqueur cheese that he plans to have in the shops for Christmas.)
In the past, the company has approached Heinz, Marmite and HP Sauce to use their brands. "However, we very rarely have brands approach us to develop cheeses incorporating their products," says Seaman. "So there's an open invitation to any brand to come and talk about the opportunities."
At Reaseheath College in Nantwich, which has just been elevated to a Centre of Vocational Excellence for food chain technology, the number of cheesemaking courses that the college runs has leapt from three or four a year to 15 as more small entrepreneurs spot niches in the market.
Chris Edwards, the food industry training manager, says the college is increasingly being asked to help develop soft cheeses with short shelf-lives because they are ideal for the smaller producer to sell locally. "The soft cheeses are generally bespoke to a region or an area," he says.
The college is also hoping to get a Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) grant to develop a 'cheese factory on wheels' for a group of farms in the Peak District. The idea is that the college would turn up at a farm with the 'Dairy Waggon' -- a complete cheesemaking plant on a trailer -- to make cheese on site for the farm. "We'd then leave the cheese with the farm to sell and test market. They can decide if they want to get into cheesemaking themselves."
Behind the success of many of the fuller flavour cheeses now being developed is the Dutch dairy ingredients firm DSM, which supplies a range of dairy cultures, coagulants and enzymes. It has recently developed a new range of Piccantase ripening enzymes to speed up the maturation of feta, blue and other mould-ripened cheeses and provide them with a stronger, more distinct flavour.
According to Klaas Osinga, head of dairy R&D, there is a growing trend towards developing stronger, more complex 'flavour notes', accompanied by a push towards reducing ripening times. "All the dairies are working hard to develop more flavour in combination with lower fat so that they can reduce ripening times."
There's also demand for ready-to-use cheese coatings, in particular DSM's natamycin-based anti-fungal coatings, for extending shelf-life.
Although DSM has now developed its LAFTI range of probiotic strains which survive being incorporated into cheeses, Osinga warns that the real issue for cheesemakers is what sort of health claims can they make about probiotic-dosed cheeses. "There is great interest among dairies in using probiotics in cheeses as a way of differentiating themselves. But the issue is what you can say on the label." FM