Imagine the scene. The date is 1536 and the white-robed abbot speaks to the assembled valley folk. King Henry has looted the abbey of its wealth and evicted the monks, so the young abbot has no farewell gift for his tearful people. All he has left in the world is a recipe. He gives it to the valley folk facing impoverishment for loss of the work that the abbey provides. Then he bids them farewell and walks off, later to reluctantly join the Northern rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace. For thus defying Henry Abbot Adam Sedbergh [Sedbar] was to be executed at Tyburn in London in 1537 by the gruesome method of being hung, drawn and quartered, a method too barbaric to describe on a family site.
This is the legend of Wensleydale. The scene is the product of my imagination; the legend is not. What truth lies in it cannot be ascertained, but oral history states that the departing monks gave the valley folk the recipe for Wensleydale cheese. The monks were Cistercians, an austere branch of the Benedictines who sought lonely places for their monasteries, like the valleys of Northern England, where they practised farming of sheep and cattle. The monks, who originally came from France, made a cheese of ewe's milk, which was popular and made them good profit. They made one change, moving from sheep's milk to cows'. This was because sheep only yield milk eight months a year, while the cheese business required the year round milk production that only cows could provide. Not that the valley folk could not make cheese already, they could, but they took over the monks' recipe and made their cheese in their own dairies and kitchens. And so they profited.
But by the later years of the nineteenth century things were becoming more difficult. International trade saw factory-produced cheese from America undercutting the craft cheeses made in British dairies. Moreover, cheap cheeses from Britain's imperial possessions, such as New Zealand, burst onto the market worsening the undercutting. Globalisation did no good at all for craft producers and traditional products.
War worsened matters, because under the appalling pressures of food shortages government standardised cheese production to a limited range of cheeses, the best known of which was known as government cheddar. After the Second World War supermarkets proved to be a force for standardisation, and production of local cheeses produced in small creameries declined. When I was a child in the 1950s I had only ever known cheddar cheese, which is not surprising, as rationing of cheese continued to1954; but I remember the day when my mother managed to get some Cheshire cheese! It was a novelty to me, and a delight.
However, the fightback by lovers of traditional, craft and farmhouse cheese lovers had already begun, and one name stands out, Kit Calvert and the Hawes creamery at the head of Wensleydale in North Yorkshire.