‘We stand in reverence and awe as we gaze at the ruins of Fountains or Jervaulx, but the true and lasting memorial is not in the stately ruins but in the miles and miles of limestone walls and that peacetime delicacy, a ripe blue-veined Wensleydale cheese’.
Kit Calvert, ‘Wensleydale Cheese’ 1946.
Wensleydale cheese is one of our great ‘territorials’ one of a group of British cheeses like Lancashire, Cheshire, Cheddar, named after the region in which it is made. Its history, though, is as turbulent as modern day banking – a story of boom, near bust and back again.
The first clue that cheese was being made in the Dales comes from a Roman curd strainer dug up at Bainbridge in Upper Wensleydale, but it was the Cistercian monks who brought over the technique for the blue ewe’s milk cheese they were making in Roquefort and Burgundy. By 1150 they were making cheese at Fors Abbey near Bainbridge before moving on to gentler Jervaulx.
It must have been a lovely cheese. The limestone pastures of the monastic granges would have delivered superb milk. The dank cellars and storage vaults coupled with the natural moulds that flourished in the stone would have created the blue veins and by all accounts it had a rich, spreadable consistency.
Down the centuries Wensleydale cheese evolved from a blue to a white cheese and cow’s milk gradually replaced ewe’s milk. By the 19th century farmhouse cheese-making had spread across Coverdale, Swaledale and Cotherstone. At Yarm Fair 1,000 cheeses were reportedly for sale.
Local businessman Kit Calvert became a Yorkshire hero when he formed the Wensleydale Cheesemakers Association in an effort to save traditional Wensleydale cheese-making. But by the 1960s the restrictions imposed by the Milk Marketing Board meant it all but died out in the Dales. Before the Second World War there were 433 farmhouse cheese-makers in the Dales twenty years later there was none.
Factory cheese-making survived only in Hawes, at the Wensleydale Creamery but it was a bland, white, boring cheese hardly worth saving. In 1992 when Dairy Crest announced their intention to relocate Wensleydale production to Lancashire, there was uproar but a management buy-out saved the day.
Today Wensleydale cheese is successfully produced at the Wensleydale Creamery at Hawes. It is the largest cheese maker in the Dales, and it’s quite a set up with cheese tours, a tea room and a shop all promoting their flagship brand ‘Real Yorkshire Wensleydale’.
But they are not the only cheese-makers in the region. A handful of small producers are making some lovely and distinctive Wensleydale-style and regional cheeses.
In Teesdale Joan Cross has been making her mild creamy Cotherstone for over 30 years available at Cotherstone Post Office and by special order from Neals Yard.
Iain Hill began making cheese in 1978 from a dilapidated farm at Horton in Ribblesdale. Today his niece Iona carries on the tradition of the Ribblesdale Cheese Company at their base in Hawes and while they predominantly produce goat’s milk cheese, they do make a little Wensleydale.
They’re not Wensleydales, but some of the best regional cheeses comes from the dairy at the Camphill Village community at village on the North York Moors. Look out for Yorkshire Tomme, Dale End Cheddar and proper Gouda.
Tom and Clare Noblet use a traditional Dales recipe to make their farmhouse Felstone, with its fresh lactic tang its close to a traditional Wensleydale as you’ll get.
It’s heresy to say so but one of the loveliest Dales cheeses, though it began life in Bedale, is now made in Lancashire but if you come across Suzanne Stirk’s King Richard III Wensleydale, snap it up. She was at the forefront of the cheese revival, and it’s a lovely cheese.
You won’t find Richard III, nor many of these farmhouse cheeses in any supermarket, but in our view, the very best cheesemonger in the region is the Courtyard Dairy at Settle run by Andy and Kathy Swinscoe who source the best British and continental cheeses, can tell you their provenance and keep them and sell them in perfect condition. Buy from the shop or online.
The last word though goes to Judy Bell who began making Shepherds Purse cheeses at the family farm near Thirsk in the 1980s. Today her cheeses are distributed nationwide. The range of soft, blue-veined ewe’s milk cheeses have origins that are echoed in those early French cheeses made by the Cistercian monks way up at Jervaulx, happily bringing the story full circle.