© Denzil Green
Wensleydale cheese is a white, moist, crumbly cheese with an uneven surface somewhat like Caerphilly. It has a clean tang behind its mild taste.
Wensleydale cheese is sometimes sealed in wax to keep the moisture in.
There is a version that has cranberries in it for the Christmas market. In 2010, 29% of all Wensleydale Cheese sold was the cranberry version. See separate entry on “Wensleydale Cheese with Cranberries.”
There is also a blue cheese version of it. See separate entry on “Blue Wensleydale.”
Making Wensleydale cheese
Eight Imperial pints of milk (4.5 litres) are needed to make a pound (450 g) of the Wensleydale. It is made from pasteurized cow’s milk, though some dairies are now blending in sheep’s milk or making it entirely from sheep’s milk, as it used to be made (well, up until the 1500s, that is.) When made with sheep’s milk, the cheese will come out even whiter. The milk is curdled with vegetarian rennet, then the curd is placed into moulds, then pressed.
It is generally aged for about a month, but can be aged anywhere from 2 to 4 months. At Wensleydale Creamery, the cheeses are turned once a week as they age, to keep the moisture moving through them.
Wensleydale is good with gingerbread, with fresh fruit such as apples, or with desserts such as apple pie or fruitcake. It melts very well in cooking.
Wensleydale has a fat content of 45%.
You may read elsewhere that Wensleydale cheese was created by monks who had either (a) come from Roquefort in southern France, or (b) had brought over the blue cheesemaking skills of their monastic order in Roquefort. Both assertions are factually invalid. (a) The monks were Cistercians from Normandy; if anything, Cistercians specialised in Surface-Ripened and Washed-Rind cheeses; (b) There is a Cistercian abbey in the Roquefort area, called Sylvanès Abbey, but it was famous for its hot water springs, the Bains de Sylvanès (baths), which brought them prosperity. They were not associated with cheesemaking — they were busy enough collecting money from people who wanted to bathe in the thermal spring waters. Indeed, Roquefort Cheese sprang not from monasteries, as some cheeses did, but rather from everyday people making use of certain caves to store their cheeses in.
Now, onto a more factual account of the origin of Wensleydale cheese.
French Cistercian monks (the same order of monks as that of Port du Salut cheese fame came to Yorkshire from the Normandy area of France around 1150, after the Norman conquest of England. At the time, the Cistercians were setting up satellite abbeys everywhere (in Denmark they also established Esrom Abbey, of the Esrom cheese fame.)
In the Wensleydale area of Yorkshire, England, they built in 1145 an abbey called the “Abbey of Fors” at Fors and Wenton, on the site of what is now Grange, Yorkshire. After many difficulties in that spot, in 1156, the Cistercian monks transferred to a more promising site at East Witton, and established a new abbey, called Jervaulx Abbey, where their numbers were reinforced by more Cistercian monks from Byland Abbey in Ryedale, North Yorkshire.
At Jervaulx Abbey, they started making cheese from sheep’s milk.
Wensleydale was originally a very soft blue cheese. Not owing however to it being a knock-off version of Roquefort, but rather owing to the storage caves in the area that the monks took advantage of to age the cheeses in.
The switch to cow’s milk started in the 1300s, and accelerated at end of 1500s, when monasteries in England were dissolved, and production of cheeses moved from monasteries to farms. (The Wensleydale monastery was dissolved in 1540.)
No pure white Wensleydale was made until the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian era. Even so, up until the 1920s, just saying “Wensleydale” meant the Blue Wensleydale. Now, the white is better known and the Blue is considered the novelty version. See separate entry on “Blue Wensleydale.”
In 1935, when the “Wensleydale Creamery” at Hawes in North Yorkshire was struggling, it was purchased by a man named Kit Calvert — just in the nick of time to be hit by wartime food control regulations. Commercial production of Wensleydale was forbidden from 1939 until 1954 under rationing in Britain. The creamery was only allowed to make Government Cheddar Cheese.
In 1954, the creamery managed to restart some Wensleydale cheese production, despite some efforts by the British Milk Marketing Board to prevent them from doing so. In 1966, though, Calvert sold the business to the Milk Marketing Board, and in 1981, when the Dairy Crest company was founded as the processing arm of the Milk Marketing Board, the creamery became part of Dairy Crest operations, focussing on production of Red Leicester cheese with Wensleydale as a small, side product. In May 1992, Dairy Crest announced the closure of the creamery. A young manager, David Hartley, organized three other managers at the plant, along with John Gibson, a local businessman, to save the plant. Six months later, in the fall of 1992, they were able to do a management buy-out. They had to re-purchase a great deal of equipment as Dairy Crest had already begun selling things off in preparation for the shut-down. The buy-out went through on a Friday afternoon; on Monday, the Safeway grocery chain called saying they wanted to stock Wensleydale cheese.
In 1995, the cheese got a sales boost when the animated character Wallace, of Wallace and Gromit fame, mentioned that he liked Wensleydale cheese in the animated short file “A Close Shave.” (Ed: Wallace’s first mention of it was in 1989’s “A Grand Day Out.”) A 2005 mention of Wensleydale by Wallace in “The curse of the Were-Rabbit” caused a 23% increase in sales of the cheese.
In 2010, makers of the cheese applied for European PGI status for the cheese.
Literature & Lore
Customer: Uuuuuh, Wensleydale.
Customer: Ah, well, I’ll have some of that!
Owner: Oh! I thought you were talking to me, sir. Mister Wensleydale, that’s my name.
— Monty Python’s Cheese Shop sketch, 1972
Wensleydale is in the Yorkshire Dales, a few miles to the northwest of the city of York.
Moore, Victoria. The wonder of Wensleydale – a big cheese at last! London: Daily Telegraph. 24 December 2010.