Wensleydale cheese is a white, moist, crumbly cheese with an uneven surface somewhat like Caerphilly cheese. 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. 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.
Wensleydale during World War Two
In 1940, Wensleydale production output was requisitioned for troop supply:
“Without experiencing any qualm of conscience as to my patriotism (writes
a Manchester Guardian correspondent) I feel none too happy about the Government’s reported commandeering for the troops of the output of all makers of Wensleydale cheese. This seductively flavoured production is one to which I treated myself with the rarity that enhances enjoyment. For my own part, and purely as a consumer, I could bear this affliction. As a Christmas-present-sender, however, I call down curses on the instigator of the commandeering. Wensleydales are not easy to come by in the South, and many of my old friends there have given convincing evidence of their appreciation of the little “kebbucks” which supplied so neat a solution for the difficulty of choosing Christmas gifts.” — War and The Wensleydales. Northumberland, England: Blyth News. Tuesday, 2 January 1940. Page 3, col. 7.
Significant-scale commercial production of Wensleydale was disallowed from around May 1941 under wartime food controls in the U.K., which in fact lasted until 1954. Commercial cheese factories of any size were only allowed to make Government Cheddar Cheese, and Wensleydale producers were no exception.
Small amounts of farmhouse Wensleydale were permitted to be made at farms during the war using small amounts of milk that did not make sense economically to transport to the large dairies.
“Increasing numbers of dairymaids are returning to the manufacture of Wensleydale cheese. Cheese rationing comes into force on May 5 (1941) and the Ministry of Food will be the sole buyers of all Wensleydale cheese made on and after April 1. It is likely that the full control of Wensleydale cheese will result in a greater manufacture than that which previously had been expected, I was told. Isolated farms from which milk cannot be sent will again put the “cheese kettle” on the fire each morning, and heat it to a certain degree. Then “keslop ” will be added to separate the curds from the whey. “Keslop” is the old-fashioned equivalent for the modern rennet: it takes approximately a gallon of milk to produce one pound of cheese.” — Wensleydale Cheese. Leeds, Yorkshire: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Wednesday, 9 April 1941. Page 6, col. 3.
The size of Wensleydale cheese allowed to be made was controlled, however:
“The small 1 lb. Wensleydale cheese, popular in peace-time, is not likely to be seen during the war. A member of a dairy farm told “The Yorkshire Post” that creameries would not be allowed to make cheeses smaller than 7 lb., and the Ministry expected the largest possible sizes of farmhouse cheese to be made. It was doubtful, he said, if any cheeses under 4 lb. would come on the market for the duration of the war.” — News of the North: No Small Cheeses. Leeds, Yorkshire: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Saturday, 12 April 1941. Page 6, col. 8.
Also in April 1941, there was mention of a small increase in production of Wensleydale being encouraged, though the report mentioned that the nature of the cheese would need to change:
“War-time Wensleydale cheese, which farms and factories in the dale are now beginning to produce on an intensive basis in response to Government call, will differ somewhat from the pre-war make. So I gathered, following a private meeting at Coverham yesterday under the auspices of the Ministry of Agriculture, of Wensleydale cheesemakers, who were lectured by Dr. J. G. Davies (National Research Institute of Dairying) and Mr. D. A. Mackenzie (Advisory Agricultural Bacteriologist, Leeds University) on methods of manufacture for storage instead of the customary quick sale. Mr. John Rowntree, of Coverham, one of the biggest cheesemakers in the north, told me: “The Wensleydale industry as a whole has now entered into production for the season. The cheese we are making is for storage against winter consumption on a rationed basis. It will be drier than the prewar Wensleydale and will cut differently and have a slightly different appearance. Some people may not like it as much. Others may like it more. It’s all a question of taste.”
“I suppose we may take it there’ll be no loss of food value?” I asked.
“Emphatically.” said Mr. Rowntree. Wensleydale cheese will be quite as nutritious as before.”
Other points: Wensleydale, also Cheddar and Cheshire type cheese produced in the district, will be supplied only to grocers who have bought them in the past. They will, therefore be distributed almost exclusively in the North. “I don’t think our products will go further afield than Lancashire and South Yorkshire”, said Mr. Rowntree.
Eight factories and 100 farmhouses in the dale will be taking part in the cheese “drive.” Prospective production is an official secret. It may be mentioned, however that the pre-war capacity of a typical factory was about 1,000 lb. per day, with one factory rising to between 3,000 lb. and 4,00O lb. A typical farmhouse unit produces 25 lb. a day, the cheesemaker usually being the farmer’s wife. There have hitherto been production difficulties arising from milk shortage, but the Government promises increased supplies. Mr. Rowntree said: “I think a large number of retailers have not yet fully appreciated the need to cut down their sales so that more milk will be available for us but in this regard matters are expected to improve greatly during the next fortnight.” — Big Wensleydale Cheese Drive. Bradford, West Yorkshire, England: Bradford Observer. Friday, 18 April 1941. Page 4, col. 5.
In May 1941, however, it became clear that the “slightly different” change to Wensleydale Cheese would be that it would, in fact, be cheddar (or Cheshire) cheese:
“Cheese is being made in Wensleydale, but not now the cheese for which the Dale is famous. Mr. John Rowntree, of Messrs. Alfred Rowntree and Sons Ltd., of Coverham Dairy, Middleham, told me today that for the time being, because of the orders of the Ministry of Food, they are making Cheddar and Cheshire cheese by the ton in preference to Wensleydale cheese. At this dairy, where 4,000 gallons of milk daily is being used solely in the manufacture of cheese, a staff of upwards of 40 dairymaids and others make cheeses up to 65lb. in weight. The Ministry will not allow the making of the popular small Wensleydale cheese. The bigger the cheese the better the Ministry can handle it, and the less waste there is in cutting it up.” — From Our Correspondent. Leeds, Yorkshire. Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Thursday, 29 May 1941. Page 6, col. 5.
Consumers of the resultant product were not pleased, however:
“Regarding the doubling of the cheese ration from the first week in July, a correspondent in the “Manchester Guardian” writes: “Perhaps that explains why accounts in some of the newspapers have been telling us that there was more cheese coming along because the Wensleydale makers had been instructed to change their formula and produce cheese after the Cheshire and Lancashire models. Some of the rationed cheese recently bought round Manchester has set one wondering about its origin. It has been offered and sold as Cheshire and one week’s ration for two people has yielded just about enough to put that description in the very gravest doubt.
It is far less firm in substance than it ought to be to justify that description and it is decidedly more mild in flavour. It might, in short, be accepted as a reasonably good and characteristic sample of a new Wensleydale. It may be that it is Cheshire cheese as ordered to be made in that excellent and picturesque region of the county of broad acres.” — Cheese sold as Cheshire. Chester, England: The Cheshire Observer. Saturday, 21 June 1941. Page 8, col. 2.
One unhappy consumer compared it with soap:
“At one time there was always an ample supply of Cheshire cheese on Merseyside. Since the war the county’s most famous product has mysteriously vanished, and as a rationed substitute we are given an indeterminate concoction which looks and tastes like synthetic sоар. Can anyone say where Cheshire cheese has gọne? We are told — and this officially — that the cheesemakers are making more and more cheese from Cheshire milk. It would be so nice to get a ration of Cheshire occasionally. — J. B. C., Bromborough.” —- To the editor. Liverpool, England: Liverpool Evening Express. Wednesday, 11 June 1941. Page 2, col. 4.
Despite the above note in 1941 that any actual Wensleydale cheese made would only be sold directly to the Ministry, in 1943, it was advertised by one private retailer for sale “at controlled prices”:
Hawes: “Wensleydale Cheese controlled price.” — Poultry and Game. Leeds, Yorkshire: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Thursday, 11 December 1941. Page 5, col. 3
Presumably this was the small-scale farmhouse production. Transportation of the actual Wensleydale cheeses for sale outside the very local production area was, however, disallowed, so in effect, on a national scale, Wensleydale did not exist for British consumers during the war:
“Mr. Hugh Lawson (Common Wealth, Skipton) asked the Minister of Food if he is aware that Wensleydale cheese could be supplied to the Skipton area without using more transport than is at present necessary for supplying imported cheese, and that suppliers of cheese have stocks of Wensleydale cheese on their hands, and if he will arrange for the release of this cheese for this area.
Colonel Llewellin: While I sympathise with anyone who is cut off from the cheese he likes (laughter). I am afraid that stocks of Wensleydale cheese are not more than sufficient to meet requirements in the area in which it is made.” — Wensleydale Cheese. Leeds, Yorkshire: Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. Thursday, 13 July 1944. Page 3, col. 2.
Wensleydale Postwar Revival
In 1954, the Hawes creamery owned by Calvert managed to restart some larger commercial 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 Hawes creamery operation and that production of the cheese would be moved to Dairy Crest’s Longridge plant in the county of Lancashire. This would also have meant a loss of market for local farmers which supplied the creamery with the milk:
“Campaigners fighting to save the Wensleydale Creamery at Hawes from closure won further support when they lobbied a meeting of dairy farmers in Darlington. The NFU (National Farmers Union) called upon the creamery owners, Dairy Crest, to provide background financial information to help formulate a bid for the business and to help the creamery continue in production. “We have a hell of a fight on our hands but we will succeed”, Alex Dinsdale, chairman of Hawes Parish Council, told a meeting of the North Riding and Durham NFU County milk committee at Agriculture House, Darlington, yesterday.
“We cannot save all 59 jobs at the creamery. But we can save 20 to 35, and they will be making traditional Wensleydale cheese from milk from Wensleydale cows.”
Over the years, Mr Dinsdale said, the number of farms in the upper part of Wensleydale had fallen from 20, 16 of which produced milk, to only four today. Farmers feared that if the creamery closed, and the present milk quota restrictions were lifted, they would not be able to continue in dairying….
Ian Watson, Norther regional member of the Milk Marketing Board which owns Dairy Crest, said he sympathised with the residents of Hawes and with the whole of Wensleydale. “But as a board we have to take commercial decisions representing the best future for all our 27,500 producers”, he said. “We have to make decisions with our head, not with our heart.” — Leach, David. Union Backing for Creamery Campaign. Newcastle, England: Newcastle Journal. Tuesday, 12 May 1992. Page 29, col. 2.
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 achieve a management buy-out.
“WENSLEYDALE cheese will return to North Yorkshire after the acceptance of a management team’s bid to buy the creamery where it was made. The closure of the Hawes creamery in June with the loss of 59 jobs was a huge blow to the small town, where it was the biggest employer. The owners, Surrey-based Dairy Crest, planned to move production to Lancashire. But the company announced yesterday that the creamery and distribution business are to be sold to a group including former members of the management team for a sum in excess of £300,000.” — Wensleydale cheese stays in Yorkshire. Newcastle, England: Newcastle Journal. Tuesday, 10 November 1992. Page 25, col. 5.
The buy-out went through on a Friday afternoon; on Monday, the Safeway grocery chain called saying they wanted to stock Wensleydale cheese. The new owners had to re-purchase a great deal of equipment as Dairy Crest had already begun selling things off in preparation for the shut-down.
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.
In 2021, the Hawes creamery business was purchased by Canadian cheese conglomerate, Saputo. Willis, Joe. Canadian firm to buy Wensleydale Creamery in £23m deal. Richmondshire Today. 5 July 2021. Accessed January 2022 at https://www.richmondshiretoday.co.uk/canadian-firm-buys-wensleydale-creamery/
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
“Partygoers in the United Kingdom know the Wensleydale dip, which is not a new dance step but a mixture of four ounces of [Wensleydale] cheese, four chopped walnuts, four tablespoons of warm cream, a little onion juice, chopped watercress, a pinch of cayenne, and salt to taste.” — Jones, B. The World of Cheese. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 1976. Page 26.
“Apple pie without Wensleydale cheese is like a kiss without a squeeze!” — Yorkshire saying.
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.
|↑1||Willis, Joe. Canadian firm to buy Wensleydale Creamery in £23m deal. Richmondshire Today. 5 July 2021. Accessed January 2022 at https://www.richmondshiretoday.co.uk/canadian-firm-buys-wensleydale-creamery/|