The Wensleydale is the valley (dale) of the River Ure on the east side of the Pennines in North Yorkshire. It is the only dale not named after a river, such as Nidderdale (river Nid), Coverdale (river Cover) or Swaledale (river Swale), but from a village called Wensley. However the older name, "Yoredale", can still be seen on some maps. The river Ure goes over our village and beautiful Aysgarth Falls (nice enough to feature in “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”) and obviously passes through the city of York.
If you are interested in history there are few spots you have to visit in Wensleydale. One of them is Castle Bolton, with its most famous event to have taken place in the castle's history - the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots after her defeat in Scotland at the Battle of Langside in 1568. Also if you are looking for Richard III connections you have to visit Middleham - the smallest township in England (where we use to live for two years) with its remaining of castle, where king was brought up. Also it is interesting place if you are race horse lover - every year 14 local racing stables are open to public. Everyday you can see many horses on the streets going to get a daily training on the gallops just outside the town.
I have to mention a lovely meadows, hills and specific climate that brings tourist to this place. Also milk from local farms where the cows graze the sweet limestone meadows that are rich in wild flowers, herbs and grasses has a unique flavour. It is this herbage that gives the milk, and hence the cheese, its special dales flavour.
There is over a 700 different types of cheese in UK and they can tell a lot about history of this country or specific region they were made in. My local cheese has a unique and long history, as old as some of the mentioned castles.
The art of cheese making was introduced to Wensleydale in XII century by French Cistercian monks, who then moved from earlier monastery established at nearby Fors, where the land was poor to Jervaulx. You can visit their abbey that remains in the area to the present day. Then the recipe was passed down to local farmers’ wives who continued to produce the cheese in their own farmhouses. In 1897 a local merchant of Hawes began to purchase milk from surrounding farms to use it for the manufacture of Wensleydale cheese on a large scale.
Back in the 1930’s the economical depression made trading conditions difficult, leaving the creamery in significant debt to farmers and the dairy faced closure. In 1935 local businessman manage to get a support from local farmers, raising enough money to rescue the dairy. In 1966 he sold his well established business to the government agency established that controlled milk production and distribution in the United Kingdom (Milk Marketing Board). Unfortunately the factory faced some problems in 1992 and it was closed down with the loss of 59 jobs.
Half a year later, following many offers to help the creamery, four former managers together with a local businessman managed to buy the dairy and with help of some ex-workers they produced some more cheese just before Christmas.
Over the following years the Wensleydale Creamery has been developing, winning many awards, and is now employing over 200 people and has many contracts for supplying major supermarkets with their cheese.
This is a brief history, how about the cheese? The Wensleydale Creamery ensures that they produce cheeses using traditional recipes that have been handed down through the generations. There is a wide selection of cheeses to choose from, made either with cows’ or ewes’ milk. Creamy white Real Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese has a mild, fresh, clean flavour with a honeyed aftertaste and a crumbly, flaky texture. It is the most neural of those produced in creamery.
Creamy white Oak Smoked Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese is smoked naturally using oak chips to produce smoked flavour. The body of the cheese maintains the typical characteristics of Real Yorkshire Wensleydale; fresh, bright, slightly crumbly and flaky. The rind of the Oak Smoked Yorkshire Wensleydale cheese adopts an attractive golden beech colour and is slightly firmer due to the natural smoking process.
Also there is one of my favorite cheeses called Jervaulx Blue (formerly known as Blue yorkshire Wensleydale but often causing confusion - many customers expected a typically white crumbly cheese instead of smooth, creamy blue cheese).
If you do not fancy blue cheese do not worry – there is still more to choose from. For example there is a wide selection of blended cheese. You can choose from cranberry, apricot, pineapple and one of my favorites – ginger one.
Although if you are not a big fan of cheese with fruits you can still find something nice for you: cheese with balsamic onions, caramelised onions, chives or cracked black pepper.
The Wensleydale Creamery offers a trip that starts in their small museum, where you can watch a film about its history and see old cheese making equipment such as 300 years old cheese stone press, or kitchen from 1920’s. Next you can go further to the creamery itself and continue the viewing in the sort of gallery overlooking the creamery itself.
From there you are able to visualise cheese making in dairy today. It is actually very busy! After delivering from the milk from the local farms and before the milk may be used making the cheese it is pasteurized. The milk is then cooled and pumped into vats for cheese making.
Next stage is adding the ‘starter’ which is a special blend of bacteria which occur naturally in milk and makes the milk become “soured”. Next the rennet is stirred into the milk which is then allowed to ‘set’ until it coagulates to form a semi-solid junket.
The semi solid coagulum is cut into small pieces by rotating knives and stirrers to release ‘curds’ and ‘whey’. The cutting process continues until the curds have reached the correct size. When a certain level of acidity has been reached, stirring ceases, allowing the curd to settle in the bottom of the vat. The mass of curd is cut into large blocks and moved to the sides of the vat making sure the whey to run out freely.
Next the salt is added by hand from big buckets. The salted curd is allowed to ‘mellow’ for 5-10 minutes before being put through the cheese ‘mill’ and shredded into small pieces.
The freshly milled curds have a very springy texture but soon start to knit together in the cooler. They are packed by hand into stainless steel moulds which are weighed and loaded onto boards ready for lifting into the press. Wensleydale cheese is only pressed lightly. Pressure shapes the cheese and expels any remaining whey. It is quite important to press the cheese into moulds by hand as the machine could be too ‘aggressive’. If you look at the Wensleydale cheese packaging it proudly says “handcrafted”.
Traditional Real Yorkshire Wensleydale cheeses are bandaged in muslin as soon as they are removed from their moulds. They are then taken to the drying room where they are turned over daily for 4-5 days to ensure even drying and the best flavour. When the surface of the cheese is dry a natural rind forms. Then it may be bagged, labeled and taken to the store room for dispatch, or it may be sent to the maturing room.
The traditional cheeses are stored in a cool, dark store for 4-6 months and checked regularly by the cheese grader. I wish I could have his job…
When you already visited museum and creamery itself it is time to do some shopping in their specialist cheese shop. It is very nice and gives the opportunity to sample all of cheeses before you buy, so there is no room for mistakes – you know exactly what you are buying.
If you are looking to buy a nice gift for somebody you will be delighted by a range of cheese truckles finished in colourful wax. It is eye catching and underneath this nice finish you will still find a lovely cheese. What a great gift idea!
Also you can select from a range of fruit cakes (they go nicely with Real Wensleydale!), chutneys or local ales. Why not wash you mouth with some tasty ale after a cheese feast?
Next I would recommend stopping at their tea room. The Visitors Centre is now being modernised so some of the spots are still not open, although the tea room and toilets I have found very modern and functional. I would not be me if I had not try something from their menu. Stopping by in a nice, spacious tea room I had the opportunity to watch lovely views and try the most delicious cheesecake. It was rich, creamy and sweet with very interesting ginger flavour. Also I was pleasantly surprised by tea – they serve my favourite tea produced in Harrogate (North Yorkshire, about 30 miles away from where I live). I have to admit I was quite sad when on my plate there were only some crumbs left but in few minutes my stomach sent me a message that it is already full – of course, I was sampling the cheeses in the shop earlier on!
Just to finish I have to mention one scene from Wallace and Gromit film when Gwendolyn admits that she would not have a cheese because it gives her a rash and she cannot stand the stuff. Wallace gulping hardy says "not even Wensleydale?" (by the way I have read an interview with the director of Wallace and Gromit and he said that he chosen Wensleydale because it is a funny cheese to say!). I could see a pain on Wallace’s face and I understand him more than anybody else. I mean: how can you not like the Wensleydale cheese?
(Please note: all the historical and the technical information about producing the cheese comes from the Wensleydale Creamery official website)