Crackin' cheese

We venture across the blustery dales to find out more about Wensleydale


More than 1000 years of cheesemaking in the same area, using the same methods, have culminated in a style so distinctive that the name has its own geographical protection. Yet when I think “Wensleydale” the first thing that comes to my mind is a clay man in a tank top and his genius dog. I clearly need some education so, ignoring the dire flood warning signs, we venture across the blustery dales to find out more.

Wensleydale Creamery in the town of Hawes is still in full lockdown, and security is tight. Nonetheless, Sandra Bell is there to open up and give me the full tour of this impressive facility.

Cheesemaking began here with the arrival of Cistercian monks in 1150 (closely related to our beer-loving pals the Trappists), who built their monastery near to where the village of Hawes now sits and continued until everyone’s favourite tyrant, Henry the Eighth, dissolved the monasteries in the late 1500s. 

Their cheesemaking skills were passed on to the housewives of the village, however, where it remained for the next 300 years. By the late 19th century, local provisions merchants were buying up the cheese from countless small domestic producers and taking it to the cities for sale. The size, shape and consistency of these cheeses varied dramatically though, so in 1887 Hawes’ first commercial creamery was built, gathering milk from all the local farms and making cheese using a more consistent process.

Like many regional businesses, the creamery struggled through the 1930s and the Great Depression, with its collapse in trade and tourism, and was only saved by the efforts and entrepreneurship of a local gentleman, Kip Calvert. By 1992, ownership of the creamery had passed to Dairy Crest, which also owned a number of other creameries making so-called ‘territorial’ cheeses; for example Cheddar, red Leicester, Gloucester etc. The company’s efforts to centralise production in a smaller number of creameries was predictably met by an outcry - after all, all sorts of local businesses were reliant on Wensleydale - and it was once again saved.

Fast forward to 2021, and the creamery is thriving: its annual turnover is around £30 million, with 200 staff across two sites, and it puts around £13 million straight back into the local economy. Yorkshire Wensleydale has a Protected Geographical Indication mark, which means it can only be made in the designated area of Wensleydale to bear the name.

But what does this mean in practice? What makes Yorkshire Wensleydale different and worth protecting? Sandra explains.

“It’s several things really. In the raw ingredients, if you think about the farms in this area, we’ve got 41 suppliers that tend to be half the size of the national average. Very much extensive farming rather than intensive, so ploughing and re-seeding a field is very rare. We’re in this beautiful Yorkshire Dales National Park, with the flora and fauna the cows eat. And that grass will be made into sileage for winter feed.

“So also we grow our own starter culture. That’s what makes it really unique as well. We grow it in vessels, and take the mother culture each day and select the strongest subculture, the best ones for activity. They’re all different ages, and you’ll get the old ones with a bit more flavour, but which work slower and the younger ones that are more active. So you select on a daily basis.”

We’re watching this process happen before our eyes, as white-coated cheesemakers walk purposefully up and down long stainless steel tables, turning the curds with long paddles, cutting, inspecting. Although Sandra says more of the process is mechanised than used to be the case, it’s clearly still a very manual, hands-on affair

“That’s the final piece of the puzzle,” continues Sandra, “the skill of the cheesemaker. They’ll know what’s happening right throughout the process. It’s a bit like a science and a bit like an art, where no one day is the same as the last because the humidity the temperature will change constantly.

“All the time, they’re checking the consistency and measuring the lactic acid to see how fast the reaction’s happening. They can even intervene to accelerate or slow things down as they need. And then at precisely the right moment - whenever that comes - they’ll add salt to arrest the process. That also adds flavour, draws out moisture and acts as a preservative as the cheese matures.”

The final step is maturation, which sees the cheese pressed into wheels, wrapped and aged in temperature and humidity-controlled rooms. Wensleydale’s range is impressive, and includes blue, smoked and fruited variations on the classic Yorkshire Wensleydale. The creamery also makes several other excellent territorial cheeses.

Outside of lockdown, Wensleydale is open to everyone - not just wildly hung over beer journalists - and there’s plenty here to draw a crowd. There’s an impressive visitor centre, which exhibits that stretch right back through the creamery’s long and storied past, and even a demonstration station where visitors can recreate the cheese-making process for themselves.

Kids obviously get to meet Wallace and Gromit, but also play with great interactive exhibits that explain the entire chain, from field to dairy to creamery to sandwich, while those of a more scientific persuasion will enjoy the in-depth videos and explanation at the cheese-makers’ viewing window. There’s also a well-stocked shop, where you can pick up your cheeses, chutneys, pickles and (honestly, it’s great) fruitcake, as well as a cafe if you’re dropping in mid-walk.

It’s been a lovely couple of hours with Sandra, but the weather isn’t getting much better, and I’m still committed to cycle some dales today. So I reluctantly say goodbye and step outside, instantly losing my hat to the howling wind. This is going to be interesting.

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