The latest UK cheese import statistics for May show that shipments of speciality cheeses into the UK are facing mixed fortunes. Overall, imports are down 6% in the first five months of this year.
The main area of cutback this year is with imports of fresh cheeses which are 5,000 tonnes or 20% lower at 20,500 tonnes. Imports of processed cheese at 15,700 tonnes are also slightly lower than last year.
In contrast, imports of blue vein cheeses are up by 4%, Brie by 3% and Emmenthal has leapt ahead by 35%. Feta cheese imports, which may be weather dependent, are down 27% to 1,220 tonnes.
France remains the main source of speciality cheese imports (20% of the total) but is being closely chased by Denmark with almost the same share. Germany and the Benelux countries are also major suppliers with the majority of processed cheese imports coming from Belgium.
Smaller but growing imports have recently been coming from Spain (230 tonnes per month), Austria (125 tonnes) and Cyprus (110 tonnes).
Hannah Buck of the Provision Trade Federation says that although volume overall is rather flat, the premium brands are "very buoyant". "There has been a shift to the more value added and premium brands which are thriving. Sainsbury is increasing its ranges and very much driving the sector. But we have also noted that restaurants are very much pushing British speciality cheeses. Perhaps that has had an impact on continental cheese generally."
Premium French supplier Isigny-Sainte-M貥 is going great guns in Britain, not least thanks to regular endorsements by Delia Smith. Its Camembert and Pont l'Eveque, and its butter and cr譥 frae are key elements in Sainsbury's driving of the premium dairy category ­ it produces a Taste the Difference Camembert ­ but they are doing well across the board in British multiples with double digit growth.
This Normandy operation appeals to true foodies and those knowledgeable in continental cheeses, trading heavily on AOC virtues and terroir. A 1,000 farmer co-operative, Isigny exports to more than 25 countries, representing 45% of its turnover, and the UK is one of its main strategic markets. It has doubled its UK marketing team to seven to boost its penetration in British supermarkets.
Assurance, "agriconfiance", and traceability aside (it was the first French food company to be awarded IS0 9002), Isigny believes it will win people over just on taste.
Export director Marc Chiron says: "Tasting is the secret. We want people to be consumed by the sheer quality of our product. We emphasise our utter commitment to quality, and it is important that we explain to people much more all the work that goes into quality and traceability, and how the rich pastures enhance our products."
Isigny's main cheese lines are soft ripened cheeses, but the co-op is also achieving growing success in Britain with its hard Mimolette cheese with competes with parmesan in terms of its strength.
A Sainsbury spokesman says: "We sell a range of Isigny-Sainte-Mè²¥ products. We see this range as the more premium end of the category, and the butter and cheeses feature in our Taste the Difference range.
"Taste the Difference Mimolette cheese is further evidence that Sainsbury sells a comprehensive and innovative range of cheeses, bringing new taste experiences to our customers."
Somerset based EuriLait is one of the major importers of continental cheese to Britain, 70% owned by Laita and 30% by goats cheese supplier Eurial Poitouraine. Current growth is 30% year-on-year. Chief executive John Spencer stresses that the true star at the moment is the goats cheese from the Poitou-Charentes region of France via the Eurial Poitouraine cooperative which currently has 18% of goats cheese sales in Britain, and 40% of imports.
EuriLait has had particular success with Individually Quick Frozen circles of goats cheese, which are a highly flexible cooking ingredient. "Goats cheese toppings for pizzas are becoming increasingly popular," says Spencer.
An intrinsic part of marketing is the publication of the book Fromages de Ch趲e, a bi-lingual publication giving the history of goats cheese and in which five celebrity chefs, one each from France, Germany, England, Spain and Japan, offer dinner party style recipes using Soignon goats cheese.
Spencer also notes Camembert sales up significantly. Price reductions which have brought lines closer to the French level have helped, he thinks.
Lower pricing has also helped French Emmenthal, which is moving nicely, says Spencer in contrast to the Swiss counterpart.