All hail the cheese shop!

Until I became a cheesemonger, I didn’t really think much about the way that I purchased my cheese. I would go to the supermarket and search for the best deal I could get on their most “mature” cheddar and pick up anything else that looked like a good deal too. Sometimes I would treat myself to cheese from the counter as opposed to the vac packed stuff on the shelves, but it never really occurred to me that the fact that my brie was always chalky, or my blues always bland was because I was going about my purchasing all wrong! 73% of all grocery retail takes place in supermarkets, so I know that I am not alone — most of us would be getting more out of our cheese if we started buying more intelligently and focusing less on the convenience of supermarket shopping.

The quality of the products that we buy from the big chain supermarkets are hardly even on most of our radars, and when it is something that we talk about, we are usually making comparisons with other supermarkets rather than with specialist food shops. As with all specialist food retail, a good cheese shop will have product quality as their most important factor in sourcing cheese. Supermarket chains invest substantial amounts of money in sourcing their products but the nature of their business requires that they focus their choices on a number of factors that lower the quality of the product that they select — chiefly their profitability, and ability to bulk purchase. Intertwined with bulk purchasing is the fact that supermarkets need to buy a finished product, the maturation and care of cheese is not something that their model allows for. Specialist cheese shops can select more expensive products, and are able to care for and mature the cheeses before selling them onto customers. This investment means that at point of sale the product sold in specialist cheese shops is invariably of a higher quality than supermarkets are able to supply.

I know from my own experience working as a cheesemonger that the advice on cheese selection that I am able to pass on to my customers has a positive impact on how they enjoy cheese. My in depth knowledge of the product that I am selling ensures that customers only eat cheeses when they are at their optimum condition, and also allows me to help introduce different cheeses to people. For example I have introduced one of my favourite cheeses, Mossfield Organic to many of my customers who usually come in to buy Comté. The response has been overwhelmingly positive — Mossfield is now a bestseller, and our customers are enjoying their cheese more than they were before! Despite what their television adverts portray we all know that supermarkets do not offer this level of investment in their individual customer needs, and we very rarely seek product advice from supermarket staff. As a result of this we as consumers are missing out on a wonderful world of high quality, artisan produce.

But convenience, ah yes convenience. It drives us. It informs almost every decision that we make. Lets face it, supermarkets are really, really convenient. The ease of shopping at the supermarket has been the thorn in the side of the specialist fine food industry for years as there has been no way for them to compete with the supermarket model. Chains like Wholefoods Market have broken the mould a little, but this is undeniably at the expense of the the product quality — they are still working on the same profitability and bulk buy model as the supermarket chains, they are just able to pass on a higher price point to their customers. The food tech industry and the internet is seeing a change in this monopoly of convenience though. Hubbub (you’ve probably seen their “Free For A Year” campaign on the tube) bring fine foods right to your door. You order your food online, whilst they work with individual specialist retailers and deliver high quality fine foods to you. The model they have adopted means that it is as convenient to shop through Hubbub as it to do an online supermarket shop, and the quality of the products that you receive is infinitely better. It is a business model that is sure to take off on a wider scale — and we will be all the better for buying into it.

Sometimes, throwing some supermarket cheddar in your basket whilst you pick up some milk on the way home from work really is the best way to go. In fact, sometimes it doesn’t taste all that bad either! I have certainly found though that buying cheese from a specialist cheese shop — and selling cheese in a specialist cheese shop — has shown me how much I was missing out on before. The world of artisan cheese is full of amazing delights that by focusing our food selection predominantly on cost and convenience, most of us totally bypass. Next time you’re buying cheese I urge you to ask a cheesemongers opinion, I swear you will never feel the same about buying your cheese again!

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