You couldn’t think of a famous food more closely associated with its surroundings than Wensleydale cheese. It’s been made in dairies around the waterfalls, limestone crags and lush fields of this Yorkshire dale for almost 1,000 years, and its history is indivisible from that of its surroundings.
The story of Wensleydale began when Cistercian monks arrived in the 12th century from the Roquefort region of France, bringing with them the art of cheese-making, though their recipe was closer to Roquefort than to the Wensleydale we know today, being blue and made from sheep’s milk. After the dissolution of the monasteries, it was the local farmers who took over making the cheese, adapting the recipe to use cow’s milk instead of sheep. Grazing on the limestone pastures, they produced milk with a characteristic grassy flavour, and the area’s fame as a centre of dairy excellence began to spread. It’s said that the Buttertubs, the 20m deep limestone potholes that adjoin the road from Simonstone towards Thwaite, are so named because they were used as cold storage for the local farmers’ butter.
Wensleydale was not produced commercially until 1897, when Edward Chapman, a corn merchant from Hawes, grew dissatisfied with the variable quality of the farmhouse cheeses he bought for his customers. Instead, he decided to buy the milk, and make the cheese himself, opening a creamery in a former woollen mill in his hometown. For decades the dairy provided stability for local farmers, who could be certain of a customer for their milk. But in the 1930s, difficult trading conditions left it facing closure. The advent of the Milk Marketing Board in 1933, proved another threat to the survival of the ancient cheese when farmers were offered contracts to take Dales milk away from the area. Then sadly in 1992, the creamery closed, only to be saved a few months later by four former employees and a local businessman.
Today the Wensleydale Creamery thrives and continues to handcraft Yorkshire Wensleydale to the same time-honoured recipe using local milk.