British cheesemakers are increasingly taking their cues from the Continent. But can their cheesy hybrids compete on price? 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then British cheesemakers must have the hots for their Continental counterparts. From Cornish camembert to Sussex halloumi, British cheeses based on European classics are beginning to rival the cheeses that originally inspired them.

At the same time, boundaries are being pushed with hybrid products that borrow from European traditions. This year’s British Cheese Awards’ Supreme Champion is a case in point. Sheep Rustler, from White Lake Cheese in Somerset, is made with ewes’ milk like manchego, but uses a gouda-style curd-washing production process and is smeared with brine as it matures to give a pungent rind a bit like reblochon.

“Modern British cheesemakers have learned a lot from the French and the Italians, but we’re not constrained by tradition,” says White Lake co-owner Roger Longman. “We take inspiration from Europe, but our cheeses are uniquely British.”

“We’ve learned from the French and Italians… but our cheeses are uniquely British”

Even traditional territorials are starting to speak Franglais. The £10m Red Fox brand from Belton Farm is based on a red leicester recipe, adapted to be smoother and sweeter by using starter cultures more associated with the Continent. “As we travel more we’re influenced by different flavours - we have to recognise that,” says marketing manager Alison Taylor. “People want sweeter flavours. It’s an influence from Continental cheeses like gruyère.”

The public is also more interested in provenance and animal welfare, says Kiran Dyer, marketing manager at cheese wholesaler Harvey & Brockless. “The trend is definitely towards sourcing locally, especially because of the quality and range we now have in the UK. Continental does not mean artisan and with many of the PDO cheeses [from Europe] the milk is coming from multiple sources. Nowadays, the ‘story’ is more about the sourcing and the life of the animals, rather than the French village where a cheese originated.”

Still, competing against large European dairies with access to cheap milk means price can be an issue. “We couldn’t buy milk at the price some industrial French cheeses are sold in supermarkets,” says Longman.

Prices of Continental cheeses have risen because of the weak pound, but are still often much cheaper than UK versions. A wedge of British brie can cost 30% more than a French equivalent, helping to explain the sector’s ongoing growth. Continental cheese sales, excluding blue, grew by 5.8% in value and 5.5% in volume [Kantar Worldpanel 52 w/e 20 May 2018] led by Aldi, M&S and Tesco, which saw value sales rise 27%, 17% and 7% respectively. Apart from gouda (up 18%), soft cheeses were the star performers with mozzarella, halloumi, feta and ricotta all up in double digits.

“Mozzarella is flying because people are putting it not just on pizzas, but also in salads,” explains James Millward, MD of European cheese supplier Eurilait. “We’re also seeing fantastic sales of halloumi, feta and ricotta and smoked cheeses because of the hot weather. There are British versions of these, but feta is protected by PDO and people want the provenance.”

Mike Chatters, sales director at Lactalis McLelland, echoes this point. “Provenance is crucial in Continental cheese. Shoppers want brands that provide reassurance around a product’s authenticity and heritage,” he says. “Health is another key driver and increasingly impacts shoppers’ purchasing decisions. Products such as mozzarella, halloumi and feta are lower in fat than many other cheeses.”

New entrants

Own-label accounts for 81.1% of market value, with sales up 8%, versus a 3.6% decline for brands. But brands are hitting back with NPD, including Lactalis’ spreadable soft white cheese Galbani Freschetto and a new Président mini cheese selection. Other new entrants include Castello’s Extra Creamy Brie and Halo cream cheese in chive and black pepper flavours.

At Savencia Fromage & Dairy, which supplies the Saint Agur brand and own label, general manager Nicolas Philippot says getting new brands listed is not easy. “In Germany or Belgium there are plenty of new brands on shelf, but it’s difficult to launch something new here because own label is so dominant. The retailers want new own-label products but there is risk. If we develop something successful but then lose the tender a year later, a rival can benefit from our work.”

With shelf space for NPD limited, brands are investing in marketing to support products already listed. Dutch brand Leerdammer, which is part of the Bel Group, has launched a campaign to highlight its animal welfare credentials with a ‘free grazing’ promise, guaranteeing it uses only milk from cows that graze freely in fields close to the 1,200 farms that supply the company, with a commitment the animals will graze for a minimum of six hours a day for 120 days a year.

Take-home sales in continental cheese: click here for pop-up data

“Over 70% of UK consumers want dairy brands to be more transparent about grazing policies,” says brand manager Gaëlle Vernet. “By communicating our ‘free grazing’ promise on pack and through our marketing we believe we can help consumers make better informed decisions in relation to taste and animal welfare.”

Such efforts can add real value, say many. Informing shoppers about quality and provenance is a topic picked up by Millward at Eurilait, a subsidiary of French dairy co-operatives Laita and Eurial. Laita runs the Passion du Lait charter, which covers animal welfare, land development, training for farmers, eco-friendliness, safety and quality. “The difficulty is trying to communicate that message on a 200g wedge in own label,” he says. “At the moment they aren’t important factors for retailers, but they are for brands. People need to get their heads around this to win over the next generation. Millennials are more interested in animal welfare than fat content.”

It’s this change in attitude that makes Longman at White Lake optimistic for the future of British alternatives to Continental cheeses, even if they do cost more. “There’s been a generational change and millennials are more interested in where their cheese comes from and are willing to pay good money for good food,” he says.

There’s real value in having values, it seems.

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