Britons go crackers for designer cheese

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KURT BETTIN was being bullish about German cheese in Cheshire yesterday. "We are very big in cheese," he said. "We eat 100 per cent more than Britain. Lots in packed lunches and our cold suppers."

Even though his Roviner brand, made with the milk of Bavarian mountain goats and offered in plentiful supply by Mr Bettin, stood the taste test, his case was rather hopeless.

Everywhere, at Nantwich's 102nd Cheese Show, he was surrounded by the carefully sealed circular packages which are putting a twinkle in the eye of British dairy folk. They are the new British designer cheeses. Some are flavoured with paprika, others with cranberries, orange peel and frequently garlic - which is all the rage.

The Leicester cheese "roly-poly" merits special mention since it offers everything you could ask of a British cow - soft cheese, flavoured with herbs, set into a chunk of Leicester, just like the jam in your mother's finest roly-poly.

A doorstep of mild Cheddar will no longer do for the refined British consumer, it seems. Retailers at Nantwich, where 1,760 cheeses from 19 countries are vying for prizes, say younger British shoppers are more adventurous. Havingsampled foreign cheeses on their holidays they want something more spectacular. That usually means a punchier Cheddar: mature Cheddar sales grew by 20 per cent last year, partly at the expense of mild; mature now commands half the Cheddar market.

"Cheese used to be just something to eat with biscuits. Now they want to experiment," confirmed Andrew Wilson, a consultant for Dairy Crest at Nantwich.

The mouse, depicted toying with a wedge of cheese on Mr Wilson's tie, had doubtlessly selected extra mature. That's the type which the new breed of cheese eater is going for, he explained as he cut into Orange Grove - a mature Cheddar brand with orange peel inlaid.

"A good, all-round, smooth textured, tasty cheese, hard, smooth, creamy and buttery," he said between mouthfuls. Just before he had run out of descriptive words for Orange Grove, he came to the designer product's piece de resistance. "You should now be getting a bit of tang at the back of your throat," he tells me. "Not unpleasant." And it most certainly was not.

"The French anticipated British innovation and have developed their own niches," admitted Mr Wilson. The Dutch have diversified too: their Edam no longer only comes in red packages but offers vegetarian and herb strains, sealed in purple and yellow.

The Germans export 36,000 tonnes of cheese to Britain each year, said Mr Bettin. He and millions of other Germans adore Quark, a soft variety that can be used for baking and cooking. "It's the secret of the continental cheese cake," he said.

But it was only mild and didn't offer a hint of garlic. For once, on home turf, British dairy producers were enjoying a field day. The top prize, the Duke of Westminster Cup, went to Devon's Taw Valley creamery for its double Gloucester.

Taw Valley's cheese grader, Mark Pitts-Tucker, said the days of producing slabs of cheese "then deciding who will buy it" are gone. "All retailers want products designed with points of difference from each other. The sweetness or texture of each cheese is tailored to individual retailers' requirements with a definite move towards more mature cheese," he said.

"It's great to win with a double Gloucester. Along with red Leicester, it's been terribly undersold in this country," he said.

Taste For Change

NICHE CHEESES giving the French food for thought:

Orange Grove. A full-fat soft dessert cheese with candied orange peel laid into it. The peel is designed to make make cutting into the cheese like cutting into a cake. A Dairy Crest brand.

Mexicana. A new St Ivel brand, with many spices. "It's like curry on toast," said a judge. Designed to capitalise on the popularity of curries in Britain.

Double Gloucester and Stilton "gateau", otherwise known as "Huntsman", lumping together two firm favourites into one "cake".

Brie with garlic and mushroom. In the words of one judge, "anything with garlic is going a storm". A garlic Stilton is also popular.

White Stilton with apricot. Cheese firms say more consumers are getting adventurous and beginning to appreciate it.

Wensleydale with cranberries. Nick Park's Wallace and Gromit might not appreciate designer tastes interfering with their old favourite but this is another "new" cheese which continues to grow in popularity.