Posted: 11/07/2022

Time on their side: Paxton & Whitfield’s new ageing facility shows how Britain’s oldest cheesemonger is evolving

A kid in a sweet shop is nothing compared to a cheesemonger in a maturing room. Paxton & Whitfield’s quality manager Jazz Reeves is clearly enjoying herself immensely as she moves among the shelves in one of company’s new ageing rooms, sampling the truckles and wheels with a deft twist of her cheese iron.

She lingers longest over a hard sheep’s milk cheese called Cullum, named after Paxtons’ founder Stephen Cullum, which has been made exclusively for the retailer by Cumbrian cheesemaker Martin Gott. Small chunks are handed round, followed by conversations about salt levels and rind development. 

“We plan to sell Cullum at different age profiles from three to 12 months,” explains Paxtons MD James Rutter, one of those tasting. “Cullum is about taking the glut of summer milk and preserving it for the winter. That’s what true affineurs do on the Continent. They buy up front and age it on. It’s good to be able to work so closely with cheesemakers and find solutions to problems.”

It is really exciting to see how we can influence the cheeses and add value.

After 225 years in business, Paxtons already has some very established relationships with cheesemakers, but now has further scope to collaborate after moving to a 10,000 sq ft premises last year. Twice the size of its previous HQ on the same estate in Bourton-on-the-Water, the site comprises five maturing rooms, warehousing, cutting and packing space and an open-plan office and kitchen.

Reeves and the team are currently trialling different temperatures, humidities and techniques in the maturing rooms to assess their effect on the cheeses. As well as Cullum, projects include ageing the Swiss cheese Schnebelhorn to eight months and creating an extra mature cave-aged cheddar (see box).

Eventually there will be dedicated rooms for washed rind, mould-ripened, blue and hard cheeses. “There’s a lot to work out and we don’t want to rush it, but it is really exciting to see how we can influence the cheeses and add value,” says Reeves.

With its long history, Royal Warrant and shops in Piccadilly, Chelsea and Bath, you might think value was relatively low on the priorities of a typical Paxtons customer. Older, well-heeled shoppers, who are less concerned about price, are still an important part of the customer base, but the business has also seen a big increase in younger, online shoppers, who are more price-sensitive, especially with the cost-of-living crisis. To this end, the company is looking to add new cheeses, closer to the £20/kg mark.

Paxton & Whitfield’s quality manager Jazz Reeves

“I’d hate anyone to come into one of our shops and leave without having bought anything because it was too expensive,” says Rutter. “We need to keep attracting people who wouldn’t normally shop in our kind of shops.”

Paxtons’ online sales grew hugely during lockdown, rising from 11% of sales in 2019 to 30% today, as a new generation of 25-35-year-old cheese lovers discovered good cheese via the internet. That group is now the largest and fastest growing demographic of the company’s online business. But bricks-and-mortar retailing remains an important focus, says Rutter, with sales in its stores almost back to pre-covid levels. The unique experience of visiting a cheese shop can’t be replaced, he says.

“There aren’t many shops you go into where you get that full sensual experience. From that smell when you first come in, seeing the cheese on the counter and hearing the cheesemonger talking to customers to being handed a piece of cheese and feeling it in your hand and then tasting it. People want that experience.”

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