Wensleydale. A fun word to say. Say it like your Stephen Fry’s Jeeves to Hugh Laurie’s Bertie. Wensleydale.
Say it like the man and his dog who have have become the national image of the cheese bearing the name.
Name & fame aside, however, most cheese bearing the epithet is, frankly, dull.
Save one. The One Cheese. The one true Wensleydale, made in Yorkshire that almost never was to be again, but is triumphing through a combination of more commodity-oriented efforts, tourism and sales that allow them to make what really is THE ONE WENSLEYDALE worth your scratch and your cheese board. The cheese that the makers in Yorkshire provide to the masters at Neal’s Yard Dairy under the name Hawes Wensleydale.
First, and every good Yorkshireman would probably spit and give me a Scarborough Warning over uttering it, know that Wensleydale originated in… France. During the 13th century, French Cistercian monks from Roquefort (yes, that Roquefort), settled in the region of Wensleydale, and began making the recipe we know as Wensleydale using ewes milk… by the 14th century, cows milk became the norm. Today, cow is most common but ewe does see some use.
And so on they went, one of hundreds of ancient handmade cheeses to develop and flourish across England for centuries. Until the storm that did in many and almost did in artisan cheesemaking altogether in the 1800’s: the Industrial Revolution. London continued to grow, trains meant the cities insatiable hunger could reach it’s hands further into the country, and larger, commercial dairies began to drink the country’s milkshake, sucking up all the milk they could. As is true to this day, farmers found it more lucrative to simply raise commodities and sell them rather than produce something as laborious and risky with less return than a wheel of cheese. Same was true in America.
Late in the 19th century, Edward Chapman decided to embrace “larger” but also to create a more consistent product. He began buying up milk from cheesemakers and making the cheese himself. According to Neal’s Yard, did this reduce the number of local cheesemakers? Most certainly, but it also, for some 100 years, assured that somebody would be making heritage-based cheese in Yorkshire.
World War II happened, and with it rationing and the buying up of dairy for the war efforts. Again, another blow to small artisan makers who boarded up, at least temporarily, though many for good. But Hawes Creamery soldiered on, providing business for area dairymen. But time marched… Hawes was sold to Dairy Crest and eventually, in 1992, the creamery in Yorkshire was closed and moved to Lancashire.
“Wensleydale production in Lancashire is a dagger to the heart of any true Yorkshireman, but, more seriously, the closure of the creamery also threatened the local dairy farmers. The creamery managers, workers and local people got together and arranged to take over Hawes Creamery. The independent Hawes Creamery was set up in 1993 and has prospered ever since. Longridge Creamery, Dairy Crest closed down in 1994.” – Neal’s Yard Dairy
Today, Wensleydale Creamery is a large and very commercial operation. However, we can give thanks that they reserve a corner of their production of a recipe that is close to the original for Neal’s Yard. They make their own starters, they take a traditional approach. The result is a rustic-rinded cheese, creamy from the outside to almost chalky at its heart. And it’s such a pure expression of the milk: tastes and smells simply of fresh dairy. There’s a mild lactic brightness like fresh yogurt and the minerality of the limestone, though nothing of the order of farmhouse cheddar. Wensleydale is not a forceful cheese. As my cheese education was beginning, I’d given up on Wensleydale as bland… but Hawes represents a richer, more nuanced combination of flavors.
Wenlseydale is traditionally paired with fruits, fruitcakes/puddings. The simplicity of flavors mean its more commercial styles can often be found mixed with cranberries, smothered in a fruit compote, etc. It makes a wonderful sandwich with chutney or hearty mustard.
Cheese: Hawes Wensleydale
Who: Wensleydale Creamery
Where: North Yorkshire, England
Milk Type: cow, pasteurized
Shape: 10lb cylinders
Tasting notes: fresh milk, mild lactic tang, limestone