This week’s post is nominated for both personal and topical reasons. The personal sees me in an opening credits montage from Who Do You Think You Are, staring pensively into the middle distance in the sheep-dotted Yorkshire Dales, sandwiched perhaps between Christopher Biggins and Derek Griffiths. This is because we recently found out that my great-great Uncle Charles was involved in Wensleydale cheese-making (well, okay, we think he was a stockman but that’s a vital job; happy cows equals tasty cheese). Alas, penning a cheese blog has yet to bring me the requisite celebrity and so the BBC are not rushing to help me with this one. Another time.
my family’s legacy the cheese:
Wensleydale is a hard pasteurised (or sometimes unpasteurised) cow’s milk cheese and this one is called Kit Calvert and produced by the Wensleydale Creamery in North Yorkshire. Wensleydale is one of the great British territorial cheeses and its history is rich with periods of rise and decline. Cheese in the area would originally have been made from ewe’s milk, as indeed would most English cheese. Legend has it that in the eleventh century, William the Conqueror’s troops were less than impressed with the local cheese (that’s the French, always dissing our cheese) and so the king brought over French monks, skilled in making Roquefort, to come and sort things out (a Norman version of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, if you will). The monks settled in the area and taught their tenants how to make a superior fromage, which they could use to partly pay the rent.
Over the centuries the cheese changed: during the fourteenth century, cow’s milk started to replace ewe’s, in the sixteenth century the monks were all sent packing by Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and what was traditionally a blue cheese began to develop into what we today think of as a traditional Wensleydale. A rather lovely historical detail in Patrick Rance’s seminal tome The Great British Cheese Book is that during times of rennet shortage, black snails were used to the same effect (so French!)
The first creamery was established in 1897 by a local merchant, Edward Chapman, who wanted a consistent product and so started buying milk from local farmers and making Wensleydale himself. This continued until the 1930s when the Depression saw the creamery in debt to farmers and facing closure. Every story needs a hero and this is where local businessman and cheese-name inspiration Kit Calvert rides in. He called a meeting and persuaded the farmers to unite and support him in running the creamery. For the next thirty years the business thrived and in 1966 Calvert sold it to the Milk Marketing Board.
In 1992, the then-owners Dairy Crest decided to close the creamery and do the absolute unthinkable – shock, horror – move the cheese-making to Lancashire. This was understandably not a popular move with locals, who boycotted the Dairy Crest-sponsored Milk Race when it rode through the village by remaining absolutely silent. Fortunately another band of employees, farmers and locals united behind a management buyout and cheese-making re-commenced. Shortly afterwards, Wallace (of Gromit fame) announced that he liked Wensleydale and introduced the cheese to a new generation.
Tastewise, this was another extraordinary cheese, as I found Gorwydd Caerphilly to be when I tried it a few months ago. If I say Wensleydale to you, what do you expect? A white, crumbly, slightly acidic cheese, right? Probably stuffed with dried fruit? Well, not this one. It looks like a cheddar and manages a texture both buttery and slightly crumbly (does that make sense?) And the taste, far from being acidic, is rich, a bit herby and a bit honey-y. I always find it mind-boggling how cheeses which are ostensibly the same can be so utterly different.
Oh – and the topical bit? This week Wensleydale Creamery learnt that they are like to be granted Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Yorkshire Wensleydale by the EU next year, meaning that only they (at present) can label their cheese as Yorkshire Wensleydale. Uncle Charlie would have been reet proud, I reckon.