29 November 2012

The Most British Cheese


I think the personality of a place can always be tasted in its cheese.  The voluptuous, brash, classic  array from Italy.  The seduction and traditionalism, sensory overload and decadence of cheese from France.  Britain's big three paint a picture of their own.  Stilton blue is complex, showy and rich, like the palaces and manor houses.  Cheddar is the stone walls and old mills, the Industrial Revolution and the stuff upper lip.  And Wensleydale is the B&B owner who has set out a hospitality tray of cookies and teas.  Wensleydale is the misty cow pastures, the cream teas and the tailored tweeds.  It's the Yorkshire Dales and English hospitality.

Wensleydale cheese has a long history and has changed over time, growing milder with age.  Now a white cow's milk cheese, it began life as sheeps-milk blue made by Cistercian monks from the Roquefort region of France.   They'd resettled in the valley of Wensleydale and brought their French blue recipe along with them.  In 1540, the monastery was closed and local farmers decided to pick up where the monks left off.  This is when Wensleydale started to take on its own character, ditching its French roots and blue veins.

Generation after generation continued the craft, even through World War II, a time when most other small production creameries died out.  During the war, cows were drafted into service.  Don't worry, they weren't outfitted with grenades or anything.  Their milk was called in for the production of "Government Cheddar."  Doesn't that just sound delicious?  But somehow, the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes survived.  Today it is the last remaining dairy in Wensleydale that makes the eponymous cheese.  ("Wensleydale" doesn't have the same protection as, say, "Stilton" and can be produced places that aren't in Wensleydale.  But Wensleydale Creamery stuff's the real deal.)  Approaching the Visitor's Centre, you smell warm milk.

The Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes really gave a new meaning to the term Visitor Centre.  I see those two words on a sign and assume that it means some sort of tourist set-up with cafe, shop, souvenirs, a small exhibit.  It had all  that and a museum to boot, but it also was just this big, buzzing place full of... well... visitors.  Families came in to grab lunch in the cafe and then go tap on the glass window overlooking the cheese production.  "Simon!" One shouted while waving and snapping a camera phone picture.  Simon's blush could have been the reaction of an embarrassed brother or that of a caught-off-guard crush.


People made the sample station rounds, munching on the different orange and white cubes, flecked with bits of cranberry, apricot, chili and blue mold.  Then, they grabbed the good old mild & crumbly original Wensleydale they came in to get, along with a jar of chutney, and went to the cash register to pay up.  We sat with our computers, happy to take advantage of their "Free WIFI" tabletop signs, another testament to the fact that they wanted you to linger after your "breakfast bap" (bap = wrap) or daily pud special (pud = dessert).  The cheesecake made from the ginger Wensleydale looked divine.

There's a spring in Wensleydale Creamery's step these days.  After two near-closures, the flagship cheese is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit - well, Wallace, specifically, the sweater vest wearing cheese connoisseur.  His very favorite cheese just happens to be Wensleydale.  Why? Because its delicious of course!  But also because the creator just thought that the name sounded so wonderfully British.  There is something really quintessential about it, I think.  The way it rolls of the tongue like green hills do across the landscape.  Quintessential in name and flavor, really.
It's not as loud and vivacious as Stilton, and not the dependable workhorse that Cheddar is, but Wensleydale may just be the most British of British cheeses.  It mixes amiably with pickle or chutney on a Ploughman's sandwich, rests on a cracker like an old hand on a walking stick.  Beside a slice of fruitcake, it's the loyal companion, a tad bland, but lovable.  The perfect complement, not too salty or sweet or sharp or tart.  It is a subtle flavor, but a strong one nonetheless.  One could call it brightly acidic, well-rounded, mild but strong. 
People say that the heart of the Yorkshire Dales is in the town of Hawes - and the heart of Hawes is Wensleydale Creamery.  The town's population is mostly employed at the creamery, the menus at tea houses and pubs all feature Wensleydale cheese in a proud way.  Hawes is a tight cluster of old stone buildings, the type of grey, hard-edged exteriors that you know have floral wallpaper and decorative pillows inside.  The flowery interior within the walls that were built to last.  When you put a knife to Wensleydale cheese, it feels the same way.  It crumbles and the morsels are wonderfully bright.  A cheese really does resemble the place it comes from.

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