Monday, 14 September 2015

Cheese in supermarkets

Normally I'd wax lyrical about the delights of buying cheese from a pungent stall on a French market, or from specialists like the delightful people at Truckle Cheese who made my day at GBBF with a superb platter and friendly chat (and really excellent chutney).

But let's be realistic; most people do most of their shopping at a supermarket. Nowadays thank goodness that needn't mean ten kinds of plastic supermarket 'cheddar' and a double Gloucester that tastes like cheddar with orange colouring added.

It could mean Waitrose, which has just won the Bel Trophy at the International Cheese Awards. That's given to the retailer getting the most awards for its own line of cheeses - Waitrose for instance won classes with its farmhouse cheddar, goat's milk gouda, and Cropwell Bishop white stilton - and also for a blue vein French cheese, Lancashire, Parmesan and Gruyere.

Why Waitrose?
  • Waitrose is willing to work with smaller producers and to bring more interesting cheeses into the line-up.
  • Waitrose has quite a 'foodie' customer base. Some other supermarkets might find that goat's cheese, for instance, doesn't sell particularly well.
  • Being cynical about the way the awards system stacks up, Waitrose therefore has a great chance of winning classes for slightly unusual cheeses while Asda, perhaps, doesn't. (I shouldn't be too cynical: to win the highly competitive Farmhouse Cheddar class is not easy for anyone. And 26 awards from 77 categories is rather striking. By comparison, M&S got a bare handful of trophies.)
  • Waitrose also has a brand that is seen as a mark of quality. A cheese producer who might be a bit sniffy about working with Asda will be happy to collaborate with Waitrose.
But it's worth noting that Waitrose wasn't the only retailer to win awards.  Asda got two - cheddar cheese retailer of the year and healthy cheese retailer of the year - while Morrisons won the cheese board retailer trophy, and the Co-Op won speciality cheese retailer.  And Tesco romped home in quite a few classes, with a really good haul of trophies for individual cheeses.

Only one major chain was conspicuously absent from the awards. Sainsbury's won nothing. It got a single silver ("Any other blue vein cheese - produced outside UK") and a very highly commended. It's not obvious what's going on there, but I think I shall be steering clear of their products.

Now then, what's wrong with the awards? Well, obviously, they do nothing for the independent retailer. It's a pity - because they do support independent producers. It's a real pity there's not a class for small shops, though it might be difficult to tuck into the existing format.

In the meantime, it's nice to see that the quality of supermarket cheese is being inspected, assessed, and, one hopes, improved.