Cracking Good Cheese!
I love the story of Wensleydale; the cheese that nearly went extinct and was saved by a pair of lovable claymation characters. If you are a fan of Wallace & Gromit, you are probably familiar with Wensleydale. Just the name may make you gleefully wiggle your fingers Wallace-style and exclaim “I’m just crackers about cheese!”
Although Wensleydale has a very long history dating to the 12th century and is distantly related to French Roquefort (it was originally a type of blue cheese), its modern iteration is as a crumbly, hard, non-moldy cheese with an acidic honey flavor. It was first made by Cistercian monks who immigrated to England after the Norman Conquest and settled in the Wensleydale (valley) of Yorkshire. When the monastery closed in 1540, local farmers continued making the cheese. Wensleydale production chugged along merrily until 1939, when World War II rationing demanded that all milk be used to make “Government Cheddar,” an economical and generic form of cheese that essentially killed Britain’s cheese industry. Before the war, the country had 3,500 cheese producers, but by 1954, fewer than 100 remained. Wensleydale production suffered terribly, with only one creamery surviving the war years.
Wensleydale Creamery, located in the town of Hawes, struggled on until 1992 when a fatal blow came. The Milk Management Board closed the creamery and moved its operations out of Wensleydale valley. Although cheese production continued, the terroir suffered. Because the cows no longer grazed on the unique limestone-base pastures of Wensleydale, the flavor of the cheese changed. It was no longer truly Wensleydale. Six months after the closure of the Wensleydale Creamery, a group of former managers bought it back and reopened, bringing cheese back to the valley. However, sales were low and Wensleydale was fading from the common gastronomical vernacular.
That is, until Wallace and Gromit came to the rescue! Starring Wallace, a dotty inventor and cheese connoisseur, and his faithful dog, Gromit, the claymation films put Wensleydale back on the map. Wallace’s love for cheese comes up quite frequently in his misadventures, and apparently due to the complicated pronunciation of “Wensleydale” and the exciting challenge of animating Wallace’s lips around the word, it was deemed as his favorite cheese. By 2005, after the release of the feature-length Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, sales of Wensleydale spiked by 23%. In cooperation with the animation company, Wensleydale Creamery produced a special brand of Wallace & Gromit Wensleydale, which became a huge success. Flourishing again, Wensleydale Creamery is currently pursuing a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for its cheese, which will secure the name “Wensleydale” only for cheese made authentically in the Wensleydale valley.
A couple of months ago, I stumbled upon a recipe for Wensleydale on an Aussie sustainable living blog. According to the blogger, Wensleydale is not common in Australian grocery stores and I’ve found the same to be true in the States (although I did find some at the Canyon Market in San Francisco). But with a recipe available I had to try making it myself. The process is much like other hard cheeses and includes cooking the curds for two hours and draining and milling for another two hours, then pressing overnight and eventually waxing. It’s similar to making Farmhouse Cheddar, maybe even easier.
The interesting part of this recipe was the inclusion of sage leaves, which give the cheese a great herbal flavor. I dried and sterilized the leaves by putting them in a 250-degree oven for ten minutes, then layered them in with the curd during the molding and pressing process. Wensleydale is often paired with cranberries or other dried fruit, which in some cases is actually mixed in with the curds during cheese making, but I haven’t found any precedent for making sage Wensleydale (sage Derby is another matter). It may be just a flavor thing, but since terroir is so important to Wensleydale (remember those special limestone pastures?) the sage may be an attempt to recreate that singular flavor of the Wesleydale valley. Either way, it makes a fantastic cheese. After three months of aging, my wheel was very firm, a bit crumbly, sharp to a bit sour in flavor, and infused with the savory, peppery notes of sage. Cracking good!