n Goats cheese has quietly become a star performer in dairy with supermarket ranges now mature in their diversity. Kit Davies reports There is a keenly fought battle taking place on the supermarkets' dairy shelves, and in a mature arena it's bristling with ambitious new contenders. The goats cheese products elbowing for more shelf space already demonstrate a remarkable diversity: you can, on average, see some 10 lines in major supermarkets, from the basic to breadcrumbed cooking products, and from a fair number of companies, from big co-ops down to cottage industries. It's a highly competitive arena. Half the lines available come from a variety of British producers who ­ often with a British flag flying ­ play for patriotic appeal in the face of the predominantly French importers led by Eurial Poitouraine and its UK subsidiary EuriLait. We may only be talking about consumption of 3,000 tonnes a year in the UK, in relation to a total cheese consumption figure of 550,000 tonnes. But outside the seven or eight big guns of Cheddar, Double Gloucester and so on, there are 700 niche players in the British market and goats cheese is turning into a heavyweight among them. Sales are ­ goat-like ­ leaping, and the potential is huge. "It's a real growth market," says Sainsbury goats cheese buyer Claire Rice. "We were the first to market with spreadable and breaded. We are well represented in all the areas, from Somerset and Welsh to French and the flavoured varieties. It is also coming on strongly as a cooking ingredient ­ it has a lot of uses and is very flexible." A Taste the Difference goats cheese hits the shelves in the autumn. "We expect the sector to grow further and further and are investing in expanding it," says Rice. Taylor Nelson Sofres says the market is small ­ nearly £9m a year ­ but growing strongly at 22% in the year to May. Penetration is at 6.7% of GB households. Possibilities for growth lie in the large numbers of UK consumers who have never tasted the stuff and who, until they do, suspect goats' cheese is some smelly, primitive product for the nut cutlet and sandal brigade. The "goaty" qualities that might have been encountered some years ago in something bought on a cheap Med holiday are long banished, with whiteness and purity now the most dominant impressions of a varied fixture, from light spreadable, to white logs Roulé-style in their texture, through to Brie-style mould-ripened, to cooking slices, and hard Cheddar-style. Domestic producers tend to offer a lighter taste for the British palate, while the French have stronger offerings that probably have a greater appeal to cheese sophisticates. Typical of the buoyant picture in Britain is growing new company Cornish Country Larder, formed in 1996, where four goats cheese lines are proving hits. MD John Gaylard launched mould-ripened Gevrik Cornish Babies' in April. He says the boxed semi-soft 70g format is selling very well in Tesco and Asda. He says value growth of the four lines is running at about 20%. "Watch out, you French!" he warns. "That said, the Continentals are doing extremely well and the way they attack the market is stuff you should just sit back and copy." In Wales, Gill Pateman, the owner of Merlin Cheeses at Pontrhydygroes, is set to quadruple her capacity for her 17 hard varieties this year with a view to boosting her supermarket sales. "The great appeal of goats cheese," says Pateman, "is not only to the health-conscious, because there is no cholesterol problem, but also to people with an allergy to cows' milk." But James Farnham, commercial director of Lubborn Cheese in Somerset, thinks the market has moved far beyond mere appeal to those who can't take cows milk. "People are getting bored with those yellow blocks of cheese and looking for something more interesting." Farnham says media chefs are making goats cheese hip and happening. Lubborn's Capricorn also comes as an own label Somerset Goats Cheese. "One or the other is available at most of the major multiples, and at one chain value is up 34%," said Farnham. Lubborn has also been successful in getting into the independents. The Poitou-Charentes region of France is the principal supplier of goats cheese to the UK via the Eurial Poitouraine co-operative group. This year EuriLait is upping the ante in the battle for sales and shelf space, with a marketing budget boosted to £125,000. Commercial manager Howard Newmarch is keen to build on EuriLait's success in foodservice, notably with Individually Quick Frozen slices. "Goats cheese delivers something very different and it complements other flavours very well. The biggest single halt to growth is not enough shelf space." British Cheese Board secretary Nigel White says: "British producers have done a good job, developing a cleaner taste more suitable for the British palate than the French cheeses, although I am not decrying those. I think they fit a different part of the market." You won't see goats cheese becoming as big a fixture as cows' milk cheese. But to gauge the potential, look at the size of the goats cheese fixture in a French supermarket, where there are four to five wide shelves of product. "There's a huge difference in consumption," says Newmarch. "It's daily fare and not just speciality stuff." n {{FEATURES }}