Wensleydale cheese has been made in Wensleydale since 1150, when the Cistercian monks first settled in the dale, and established a monastery at Fors, just four miles from Hawes. Some years later the monks moved, because of hostile natives and inclement weather, to Jervaulx in Lower Wensleydale. These French Cistercian monks brought with them their special recipe for the making of cheese, which continued to be produced at Jervaulx until the dissolution of the Monasteries in 1540. The cheese was made originally from sheep’s milk but over time cows’ milk was also used. The art of making fine cheese, which the monks had developed, was passed from the Monks to local farmers' wives who, for more than three hundred years, produced the cheese in their own farmhouses. Often the cheese came out as a blue cheese – as it matured so cracks in the coat would allow narturally occuring blue mould spores (from leather harnesses often found in the barns where the cheese was stored) into the cheese to create the blue veining.
In 1897 Mr Edward Chapman, a corn and provisions merchant of Hawes, began to purchase milk from surrounding farms to use for the manufacture of Wensleydale cheese on a larger scale. The industrial depression of the 1930s made trading conditions difficult leaving the creamery in significant debt to farmers and Mr Chapman's dairy was facing closure.
Farmers, who were owed money by the dairy, were offered contracts by the Milk Marketing Board to take dales milk to a national dairy miles away. The farmers, although they were creditors, were adamant that the Hawes dairy should continue, and they found a champion of their cause in Kit Calvert, one of their number. In 1935 Kit Calvert called a meeting in the Town Hall and gathered enough support to rescue the dairy, the only one producing cheese in the heart of Wensleydale.
Wensleydale production ceased during the second world war – the only cheese being made was a national Cheddar style cheese produced to a standard recipe to enable efficient distribution and rationing. Production resumed in the early 1950s but at much lower levels than those seen before 1939.
In 1966 the Milk Marketing Board purchased Wensleydale Creamery. By this time Wensleydale cheese was being made in different dairies and farms throughout England and included 3 dairies in the Wensleydale itself. In May 1992 Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, closed the Hawes creamery, the only one then left in the Dale, and transferred production of Wensleydale cheese to a multi purpose cheese plant in Lancashire.
Former managers at Hawes eventually agreed a management buy-out in November 1992 and cheese making resumed. Today, Wensleydale is still made in different parts of the UK by a number of small and medium sized cheesemakers, who specialise in themaking of English regional cheeses, as well as in the Dale itself.
The Hawes Creamery has applied for a European Union “Protefted Designation of Origin” for “Yorkshire Wensleydale Cheese” to differentiate its Wensleydale made in the Dale from that produced elsewhere in the UK.
Blue Wensleydale is also produced as well as traditional Wensleydale cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Other Producers of Wensleydale
Wenslydale Cheese is also produced in other parts of the UK for, like many British cheeses, the name describes a recipe or a method of production and is regarded as a generic name for a particular style of cheese. Most of the Wensleydale made in other parts of the UK – mainly in Shropshire and Cheshire – is made on farms and small creameries and still relies on traditional cheesemaking methods using open vats. Some is made in traditional wheels but the bulk is made in blocks which then makes the cheese easier to pre-pack. Main makers are Joseph Heler Ltd, Belton Cheese and Reeces of Malpas (part of Milk Link).
Taste and Texture
When young, Wensleydale has a milky freshness and hint of lemon not dissimilar to young Cheshire, Caerphilly or Crumbly Lancashire. As it matures so the flavours become more complex with a slightly sweet honey flavoured background. Wensleydale is a crumbly cheese but becomes firmer as it ages and in the case of the traditional cloth bound cheeses much drier.
Traditional uses of Wensleydale include serving with fruit cake and an apple for a perfect luchtime or tea time snack; with crusty bread or with hot apple based desserts such as Apple pie or Apple Crumble. It is also at home on any cheeseboard where its fresh, milky sweetness contrasts with the more intense flavours of stronger cheeses.
Much Wensleydale is is blended with cranberries and other sweet and savoury items and proves to be very popular not only at Christrmas but throughout the year. Young Wensleydale with its milky, creamy freshness makes an ideal partner with sweet and savoury ingredients alike.