The impact of the first national lockdown is still being felt across the British farm-made cheese community, and soon its effects will trickle down to customers looking to buy their Christmas cheese. One of the outcomes of the lockdown will be a blue cheese shortage, hitting consumers at the time of year when blue cheese is enjoyed by so many as part of their festive celebrations. Read on to hear how COVID-19 affected blue cheesemakers at their most productive time of year and to understand why they can’t simply accelerate their production to meet demand.
“People get really upset if they don’t have their blue cheese at Christmas. Like, really upset. Angry, even,” observes Joe Schneider. He doesn’t blame them: Joe makes blue cheese. No one understands its importance better than he does – but he does worry about the number of upset and angry people there might be around the Christmas table this year.
We are facing a blue cheese shortage. And there’s no one at fault, apart from coronavirus. In March, the first lockdown sent shockwaves through the cheesemaking industry that continue to be felt six months later, but back then the most pressing problem facing soft and blue cheese makers was not too little, but too much cheese. “They thought they were sitting on a mountain of cheese,” recalls David Lockwood of Neal’s Yard Dairy.
“No one bought cheese for three weeks. We thought we would have to throw it,” explains Joe. “It was frightening,” remembers Jo Clarke, who makes Sparkenhoe Blue, Shropshire Blue and Sparkenhoe Red Leicester with her husband David and son Will. The Red Leicester cheese they could hold, because it’s a hard cheese. “We could continue to mature it, and Neal’s Yard Dairy were selling a lot to America,” she continues. But there is no sitting on blues. Described by Neal’s Yard Dairy’s Jason Hinds as “a runaway train” once it has been pierced, the window for a blue cheese to be ready is a small one: around two or three weeks. “Different batches mature at different rates,” says Jo, “but there is an optimum time.” In spring, this meant thousands of wheels of blue cheese had to be shifted, rapidly, before they would be overly matured.
Back then, Jamie Oliver – in collaboration with Neal’s Yard Dairy – stepped up to the plate, with an appeal to the public to buy our Save British Cheese box and support farmers and makers. The boxes sold in their thousands and, miraculously, the cheese was shifted. That first surge inevitably tailed off, but sales remained steady. Slowly, cautiously, Joe Schneider, Jo Clarke and Stilton maker Billy Kevan of Colston Bassett Dairy recalled their workers from furlough and set about creating a safe environment to resume production. “They didn’t want to become a major infection hotspot. The safety of their staff was the top priority,” says David. “It took time and care to ensure they could safely produce cheese of great quality.”
The cut-off for making the traditional English blue cheeses produced by Joe, Billy and the Clarkes was roughly the middle of September. “Anything you make after that struggles to be ripe in time for Christmas,” says Joe. Yet back in July, when these producers would normally start their Christmas cheese production, predicting what December might hold was akin to gazing into a crystal ball. “It’s a chain of decisions you make based on what things look like at the time, and how you’re feeling,” says Joe. “Big Stilton makers can spread their production over many months, because they have huge freezers in which they freeze the cheese to thaw it at Christmas. But we don’t want to do that. Freezing changes the cheese, and not in a good way.” In July, Billy and Joe were cautious – “high class restaurants weren’t open yet, delis had reduced hours, people’s shopping habits had changed,” says Billy – but come August and all of that eating out to help out, rising sales suggested things might be alright after all.
So, they put their collective feet on the gas. “Towards the end of August, I started to make cheese seven days a week, for three weeks,” says Joe, “which took us up to the end of September. We’ll pierce those cheeses a week early, so I hope they’ll be ready – but there’s no guarantee.” It is, says David, the blessing and the curse of farmhouse cheese. “You can’t just press a button to make more – and that’s part of what makes it special. Stichelton and Colston Bassett Dairy were found wanting because they were trying to do the right thing in the midst of a pandemic, and they were surprised by how much cheese they then sold after having been caught with so much cheese initially.”
Fortunately for the Clarkes, this was not such a problem. “We’ve only been making our Shropshire Blue recently, so the demand is still growing,” says Jo. David adds: “They make so little of the blue cheese in the first place, relative to Stilton and Stichelton, there just isn’t going to be the same impact.” During the course of the first lockdown, they ticked over making half of what they would normally. “Online sales have been rising, sales at our little farmshop have gone up, so since July we’ve been making for Christmas what we have done previously,” Jo continues. Sure, there won’t be the big parties and dinners that normally see big wedges sold, “but people won’t be going out as much,” she reasons. “Eating good cheese at home is a nice thing to do.”
Colston Bassett and Stichelton, however, are a different story. On average, Billy and his team produce 180 cheeses a day. “That’s a lot of cheese,” he says simply. “And we furloughed 20 staff for 10 weeks during lockdown.” By the end of those 10 weeks, they were short of “about 12,000 cheeses. And when you think we only make 54,000 a year, that is a significant proportion of our yearly cheese.” Had this shortfall come in the run up to spring or summer, it wouldn’t be quite so significant; but Christmas is “huge” for blue cheese makers, says David. “They represent 40 per cent of our sales in December.” “20 per cent of our year’s earnings comes from those three weeks in the run up to Christmas. The rise is tremendous,” says Joe. But with so much uncertainty surrounding this Christmas, making the usual quantity seemed a risky thing to do. “It’s like planting an entire field of crop and hoping that come December, it doesn’t rain,” he continues. “So we’ve made less, to be on the safe side.” The other concern looming over both Joe and Billy, who send many of their cheeses to Europe, is Brexit. Come January, when those cheeses which weren’t quite ripe enough in December are ready to be sold, they have no idea what the situation will be with Europe – “or with America!” exclaims Billy. “Our tariffs on cheese sales there might change as a result of the election.
Billy is “near parity” with Stilton now, but it’s come at a cost. “We had to slow production of Shropshire Blue right down in order to have enough Stilton for our Christmas orders.” Stilton lovers should be okay – “just. Some people will still be shorted” – but those who are in team Shropshire Blue will have to be quick off the mark or choose another blue cheese. There’s no shortage of alternatives. Cashel Blue, Brunswick Blue and Rogue River Blue, would all suit a festive cheeseboard nicely. “We will have to manage the shortages,” says David. “What this also says is, there’s a really strong market here for quality blue cheese. There’s a real opening for anyone looking to make a new cheese.”
The festive message from the blue cheesemakers and from Neal’s Yard Dairy is to think ahead when it comes to your cheese orders this year – and to please understand that if you do miss out on your favourite, it is simply a reflection of the responsibility these cheesemakers feel toward their workers, the quality of the cheese they make, and the long-term viability of their industry.
To reward those who plan ahead, customers who pre-order the Early Bird Selection will receive a free additional lucky dip cheese with their order. This piece of cheese could be anything from our range, perfect for cheese lovers looking to try something different, or a chance to get bit more of a beloved favourite.