Posted: 01/05/2021

Highland Fine Cheeses’ owner is breaking the mould

Highland Fine Cheeses has enjoyed success with a range of powerful and sometimes controversial cheeses.

Highland Fine Cheeses' owner is breaking the mould

When Rory Stone joined the family business in 1994, the traditional Scottish cheese Caboc accounted for around 95% of sales. Made by fermenting double cream for up to six months, before it is drained and formed into oat-rolled logs, legend has it that Caboc was first made on the Isle of Skye in the 15th century by a chieftain’s daughter who was an ancestor of Stone’s mother. 

It’s a romantic tale, but it has done little to aid the cheese’s fortunes. Highland Fine Cheeses, based in Tain, Ross-shire, is the last remaining producer of Caboc in the world, but the cheese only accounts for 5% of sales today, with shoppers understandably wary of its bracing 75% fat content.

“I always feel with Caboc that one decent cold snap could write off 99% of the customer base,” jokes Stone. “They’ve eaten that much of it that they’ve already had triple heart bypasses.” 

As Caboc has declined, it has been usurped by newer cheeses that owe more to European cheesemakers than the daughters of Scottish chieftains. Strathdon Blue, a soft, creamy cows’ milk blue, is the company’s best-seller, closely followed by other Continental-style cheeses, such as Blue Murder and Morangie Brie.

 “We’ve got a mouldy old dairy, so I thought we should focus on mouldy cheeses,” says Stone.

“My heart is with washed rinds, moulds, and oozy, gooey, flavours. That’s where I love to be on a cheeseboard.”

According to Stone, the British public is in the same place as him, preferring strongly flavoured Continental styles over traditional British cheeses. Highland Fine Cheeses saw a big surge in retail sales during the pandemic, which helped offset a drop in hospitality orders. Overall sales are down for the year, but not by much after a 15% increase at Christmas, he says.

“People are travelling and experiencing different tastes. There’s a reason that territorials are struggling; it’s because they don’t have a huge amount of flavour. 

“New cheesemakers often want to use pint starters and unpasteurised milk and make traditional cheeses that used to be produced in their shire. But if the Model T Ford was perfect, we’d all still be driving it. I rail against the whole specialist cheesemaker thing. It’s at risk of becoming too evangelical and ethereal.”

This is a provocative statement in the tight-knit cheese world but is typical of Stone, who is not afraid to be contentious – a policy that sometimes lands him in trouble. When the company launched two washed-rind cheeses three years ago, their names were certainly controversial, if not outright offensive. Minger, inspired by Epoisses, and the semi-hard Fat Cow caused something of a scandal with some retailers refusing to stock them because of their names – a story that ended up being reported in The Times

Stone says that he wasn’t trying to be offensive. “I wanted to de-Scotify the brand and take all the ‘bens’, ‘glens’ and ‘straths’ out of it. ‘Minger’ is Scottish slang for a smelly little thing, and it’s a smelly little orange cheese. And Fat Cow was originally going to be Holy Cow because it had holes in, but someone had registered the name. There was no real sense behind that one.” 

Stone admits with a chuckle that they were “appalling name choices”, but he doesn’t seem too unhappy about all the publicity. “My sense is people will get over it and like the cheeses, so keep buying them,” he says. “My humour is sometimes mildly offensive. I’ve always been trying to do things slightly differently.”

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