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 Gorgonzola-esque 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 year for customers such as Booths and The Wine Society, so has worked to differentiate itself by pushing the boundaries of blue cheese even further. As well as its signature Burt’s Blue, it also makes Drunken Burt, which is washed in cider, and DiVine, which is wrapped in vine leaves.
“The benefit of these softer blues is they are ready at about six weeks [compared with 12 weeks for Stilton],” she says. “That’s a lot less money tied up in the maturing room, which is good for cash-flow.”
Back at Cropwell Bishop, Skailes is quick to reassure concerned Stilton lovers that Britain’s most famous blue can hold its own against the new pretenders.
“We’re seeing exports growing to the US and Australia, where Stilton is seen as a really good-quality British product,” he says. “It’s also still a mainstay on every cheese counter in Britain. These new blues complement Stilton. They get people talking about British blue cheese, which benefits everyone.”
Five new-wave British blues (with alternative festive drink matches)
Beauvale and English sparkling wine
Beauvale (below) has a luscious, silky texture and milky flavour that coats the tongue. A crisp sparkling wine cuts through the cream and refreshes the palate, says cheesemaker Robin Skailes. He recommends a flute of Chapel Down Brut, which has bready aromas and a quince finish.
Drunken Burt and cider
A cheese with a drink habit, Drunken Burt is tumbled in Gwatkins Golden Valley cider as it matures to give the rind a tangy flavour (instead of being pierced to encourage blue veining). A medium sweet cider is the obvious match, complementing the rind and bringing sweetness to the saltiness of the cheese. If you can’t find Golden Valley, try Orchard Pig Charmer.
Harbourne Blue and sloe gin
Made by Devon-based Ticklemore Dairy, Harbourne Blue is one of just a handful of blue goat’s cheeses made in the UK. The flavour ranges from bright, zingy lactic notes to floral, fudgey or even fruity flavours. Sipsmith Sloe Gin works across them all, bringing leafy, plummy depth.
Lanark Blue and Pedro Ximénez sherry
Scotland’s answer to Roquefort, Errington’s Lanark Blue is a fiery sheep’s milk cheese (once described as a “kilt-lifter”) that bucks the trend for sweet creamy blues. It’s spicy, salty flavour is tempered by the rich Christmas cake notes of Pedro Ximénez sherry. Very Rare PX Sherry from M&S is a winner.
Cornish Blue and stout
Cornish Blue was named the best cheese on the planet at the 2010 World Cheese Awards thanks to its sweet, hazelnut flavour. It’s a cheese crying out for something dark and seductive on a winter’s night. Step forward Bristol Beer Factory’s Milk Stout, which has a rich, chocolatey body that cuddles up to the cheese.
£16-18/kg, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose