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Where has all the goats' cheese gone?

Goats' cheese Goats' cheeses' popularity in Britain has increased significantly over the past five to 10 years

Goats' cheese in the UK and other parts of Europe is in short supply. Just when did the niche dairy product become so popular with British cheese fans?

"Ten years ago people wouldn't have noticed [a goats' cheese shortage] because the market was relatively small and there were very few people buying it. But that has changed," says Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board.

The distinctive white cheese, made in both hard and soft forms including the ever-popular feta, is now a popular pizza topping and features in salads, sandwiches and savoury pastries.

Cooking with goats' cheese:

Warm goats' cheese salad

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Devour a goats' cheese and apricot cheesecake

And the British appetite for it is booming.

If you've never tasted goats' cheese, like all cheeses, tastes range from the overpowering to mild and creamy.

"You can get some exceedingly strong-tasting goats' cheeses that, you know, taste like a bit of goat's armpit," says Paddy O'Keefe, general manager at St Helen's Farm, a major goat product company, in York.

"Or very subtle and nuanced flavours that are not knock-your-head off flavours."

The current shortage has been attributed to demand for goats' milk outstripping supply.

A few years ago the recession coupled with an outbreak of Q fever in goats saw a slump in the production of goat milk in European countries (in particular the Netherlands, a major exporter), according to Paddy O'Keefe.

Prices for the milk, that is imported to the UK by some cheese producers, went up, however poor weather at the start of last year has also been blamed.

Bad grazing conditions and a lack of quality animal feed caused goats to produce less milk during kidding season.

Goats' cheese Farmer Will Atkinson's hard goats' cheese is not dissimilar to cheddar but with a "gnarly rind" growing on it

The result was that "goats' milk production in northern Europe just almost collapsed", explains Mr White, although he adds the effect in Britain was less pronounced.

Mr White predicts goats' cheese production and supply will soon return to normal, but adds: "It may be that the prices will be a little bit higher because the farmers need it."

Aside from problems with milk imports, soft goats' cheese is out of season in January and February.

Farmer Will Atkinson at Hill Farm Dairy in Wellington, Somerset, says small businesses producing goats' milk and cheese tend to follow a seasonal pattern.

Goats are rested between December and the start of March, when they start "kidding" again. "Traditionally it's spring time when goats' cheese is in season," he explains.

Over the last five or 10 years goats' cheeses' popularity has "increased quite dramatically" in Britain, according to Nigel White.

Supermarkets sell a mixture of goats' cheese from Britain and from other parts of Europe.

"France is definitely the sort of queen of goats' cheese I'd say," says Mr Atkinson. "You go to any French market and there's thousands of different types of [it] - mainly soft."

Industry experts say British producers are also expanding.

Soft goats' cheese from Hill Farm Dairy Soft cheese is fresh and has a short shelf life of around three or four weeks

"The repertoire of products out there has increased because, you know, there is a market for them," says Mr White.

"Because these are very well-invested farms, the goats' milk they're producing is of a very very high quality which means when you're making cheese with it, or yoghurt, or any of the other products, you're getting a very very clean tasting product at the end of it."

This "clean" taste appeals to people who prefer less pungent flavours.

Meet a farmer who makes an artisan goat's cheese and the most of his billies

"A lot of people I speak to they say 'oh I don't like goats' cheese' and they've had it on the continent or in other parts of the world and it's been quite a challenging product to consume," says Nigel White.

"I think that palates in other parts of the world are probably quite used to it and accept it but here we expect things to be not quite so pungent."

Soft goats' cheese logs, brie-like cheese, hard varieties and even blue goats' cheeses are all produced in Britain.

Soft cheese is fresh and has a short shelf life of around three or four weeks. Hard goats' cheese - like cows' milk cheeses - takes months to mature.

Mr Atkinson made his first hard goats' cheese around a year ago. "It's not totally dissimilar to a cheddar when you cut it, but we've got a pretty gnarly rind on it," he explains.

Cheese facts

Cheeses

Around 700 varieties of cheese are produced in Britain. But imported cheeses account for almost half of all cheeses consumed in the country.

The biggest category of imported cheese is cheddar, which is largely imported from Ireland. Although cheddar makes up for over half all retail sales of cheese, British producers don't make enough to keep up with demand.

Fresh cheese is the second biggest category of imported cheese, which includes mozzarella, ricotta, cottage cheese and cream cheese.

Mozzarella is the second most produced cheese in Britain. Consumers don't see much of it however because most is sold into the pizza industry.

Source: Nigel White, Secretary of the British Cheese Board.

"It grows its own mould on the outside and so it gets quite funky on the outside."

He uses unpasteurised milk which he says increases the unique flavours, but which some people prefer to avoid.

Perhaps that goats' cheese is still a niche product has led to its reputation as a favourite among "foodies".

Historically "goats were always sort of the poor man's animal or the peasant farmers' animal", Paddy O'Keeffe says, but he is doubtful whether it's a "posh" food, despite speciality cheeses being "quirky and very niche".

He thinks goats' cheese is now becoming more mainstream, and describes his own cheese as an "everyday" sort of cheese for sandwiches, jacket potatoes and pasta.

Some people buy goats' products because they have an allergy to cows' milk.

Mr O'Keefe says this is why most of his customers buy the company's liquid goats' milk, but there's a world of goats' cheese waiting to be explored.

"The great thing about cheeses [is] there's a whole spectrum of them."

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