Wensleydale is a fresh, mild cheese from Yorkshire, England. It has been made since the 11th century when a group of Cistercian monks from the Roquefort area of France migrated to the Yorkshire area following the Norman Conquest of England. Originally Wensleydale was a blue cheese, made from sheep's milk. (Roquefort cheese is a blue cheese made from sheep's milk as well.) Today, most Wensleydale cheese is made from cow's milk and is not blue.
In the 1300's cow's milk began to replace sheep's milk in Wensleydale cheese, with a little sheep's milk added to enhance the flavor. In modern times most Wensleydale cheese is made from pasteurized cows milk with no sheep's milk added. In recent years Wensleydale has become more popular because of the animated show Wallace and Grommit.
Wensleydale goes well with many fruits, including pears. Many people like to eat it with whole wheat bread.
Wensleydale comes in many varieties. There are four main types, listed below, as well as several other flavors.
Real Yorkshire Wensleydale
Real Yorkshire Wensleydale is a fresh, moist, crumbly cheese. It is slighty tangy, with a honey-like taste. It is aged no more than 3 weeks.
Blue Wensleydale used to be much more common than the white variety. Until the 1920's if you said "Wensleydale" it was generally accepted that you meant the blue variety. Blue Wensleydale is more acidic and has a stronger taste. It is similar in its creamy texture to Stilton, but it is much more mellow than Stilton. Blue Wensleydale take six months to mature.
Mature Wensleydale is aged 6 months or more, producing a drier, harder version of the cheese. A variety called Extra Mature is aged at least 9 months. Like most cheeses, as a cheese matures longer, the flavor becomes stronger and more pronounced.
Smoke Wensleydale is a fresh cheese that has been cold smoked over oak and hardwood chips. It has a complex, smokey flavor, and golden brown rind.
Real Yorkshire Wensleydale can be purchased flavored with pesto, cranberries, apricot, ginger, and onion & chives.
There is also a sheeps milk variety.
It is amazing that Wensleydale cheese has survived as well as it did, overcoming a few major hurdles in the 20th century.
From 1939 to 1954 no commercial Wensleydale was made. Most British milk at the time was used to make one type of cheese, called "Government Cheddar." This was part of the British government's war rationing during World War II. After rationing was lifted fewer producers of Wensleydale (and other cheeses) returned to making the same cheese they used to. One creamery to survive this was located in the town of Hawes.
Dairy Crest, a subsidiary of the Milk Marketing Board, closed the last creamery in the area of Wensleydale in 1992. Production of Wensleydale cheese was moved to the adjacent county of Lancashire. There was no more Wensleydale cheese being made in the area of Wensleydale.
Since the grazing ground in Lancashire county is very different than that of the Wensleydale area, the cheese was different. Lots of attempts at reopening the creamery in Hawes occured in the next few months. Finally, six months after the creamery in Hawes was closed, it was reopened with different ownership, with the help of many local dairymen.
Sales in the 1990's were slow. But then Wensleydale cheese got a taste of unexpected good luck. The popular animated program Wallace and Grommit had a few mentions of the name Wensleydale as the main characters' favorite type of cheese. Apparently the cheese was chosen because the name was interesting to animate. The creamery approached Aardman Animations about licensing a Wallace and Grommit brand of Wensleydale cheese. The cheese brand was a huge success.
In 2008 the Wensleydale Creamery applied for PDO status for the cheese so that only cheese made in Wensleydale could be labeled as Wensleydale cheese. As of this writing, PDO status has not been approved, but looks like it will be. (See the entry on PDO in the glossary.)
Wensleydale in popular culture
Besides being the favorite cheese of Wallace and Grommit, Wensleydale is mentioned in the Cheese Shop Sketch by the comedy group Monty Python in 1972. The owner of the cheese shop is named Mr. Henry Wensleydale. You can watch the sketch on youtube.
We tried three varieties of Wensleydale and wrote a review of Wensleydale cheese.
Where to buy
If you live in part of the world where Wensleydale is hard to come by, the Wensleydale Creamery ships all over the world.
You can also find Wensleydale cheese at amazon.com.