The landscape of the Yorkshire Dales
Once upon a time on these isles, almost every local community – living in the thousands of parishes, villages and hamlets – was sustained by at least a couple of farms that produced a variation of seasonal farmhouse produce to rely on, either bought or exchanged from the farmgate or local market. These products ranged from pasture-fed meat, fruit and vegetables, to milled grains and harvested pulses, plus fresh full-fat dairy products like milk, yogurt, cream, butter and, of course, the food of the gods, farmhouse cheese – often made when milk was in surplus. Not to say that these communities had a constant glut of these delicacies on tap, but food was local, and especially cheese, which varied from farm to farm.
Nowadays, distanced by Depressions, two World Wars, decades of agricultural streamlining and centralisation of the food system, led by plenty of seemingly progressive but ultimately unsustainable government legalisation, in a period of more than a hundred years, there has been a huge shift away from local communities having access to local produce.
If we look at farmhouse cheese over this period, for example, we see a monumental shift away from thousands of individual farms making their own unique variation of cheese, selling to their local communities, to the installation of larger-scale factories, sourcing milk from cooperatives to make a standardised version of our territorial cheeses – namely your Cheddars, Cheshires and Wensleydales – sold nationwide and internationally. In fact, during the early twentieth century, there was a period in which the term ‘farmhouse cheese’ was taken and used by factory-made cheesemakers to describe their production of cheese, when the true farmhouse cheesemakers could only term theirs as ‘traditional cheese’.
Wensleydale and Andy Swinscoe from The Courtyard Dairy
This transition from individual farmhouse cheesemakers to factories, changed the face of our landscape and eventually the availability of local produce for many communities. Farmhouse cheesemakers were perhaps the worst hit, with many of our territorial cheeses going from hundreds of makers to merely a handful, or even worse. In the last hundred years, for instance, makers of raw milk Lancashire went from 220 makers to now only one. The last remaining cheesemaker is Graham Kirkham and his family who make Lancashire in sight of Beacon Fell. Raw milk Cheshire is another example, once made by hundreds of individual farms across the counties of Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire, it is only now made and celebrated by two cheesemakers, Appleby’s Cheese and Bourne’s Cheese.
Yet, it’s not all consistent, standardised doom and mundane blocks of gloom, there are regions upon these isles that are bucking the trend of this decline, populating their lands with unique versions of regional farmhouse cheeses, providing local communities with a rich, diverse bounty of produce sold either at the farmgate or weekly markets.
One fantastic example is the resurgence of farmhouse Wensleydale cheese – I stress the term ‘farmhouse’ to mean cheese made in small batches, made on the farm and/or sourced from one herd and with raw milk. The resurgence has been refreshing to say the least, going from zero makers to three makers in the last decade in the region.
Tom and Clare Noblet at Whin Yeats who make Fellstone
The first of the three is Fellstone, made by Tom and Clare Noblet at Whin Yeats Dairy in Cumbria (no, not in Yorkshire, but made to a traditional Wensleydale recipe). Due to the constant fluctuation of milk prices – “currently it costs more to milk a cow than milk is worth” – made the Noblet family search for other means to ensure the future sustainability of the farm, and making cheese appeared to be a brilliant way of adding value to the milk they were proud to produce. It was in 2015 when they built their dairy and started on their journey to make farmhouse Wensleydale cheese using the unpasteurised milk from their 80 pedigree Holstein-Friesian cows. Alongside their cheese, they now bottle and sell their unpasteurised milk, straight from the cow and completely unprocessed – which I can assure you is superb! The family also farm over a hundred native Rough Fell sheep and a small number of pigs and hens. Fellstone is made to a traditional ‘Dales’ recipe (which I will get onto later) and aged for 3-4 months to develop its unique supple texture and glorious fresh, citrusy notes.
Ben and Sam Spence at The Curlew Dairy who make Yoredale
The second of the three farmhouse Wensleydale cheeses is Yoredale, initially called Old Roan, this is made by Ben and Sam Spence at The Curlew Dairy in Wensley, Yorkshire. Named after the ancient name for Wensleydale, Yoredale is made to the same ‘Dales’ recipe as Fellstone, again using raw milk sourced from a mixed herd of Holstein-Friesian, Ayrshire and Shorthorn cows. Like all three cheesemakers of farmhouse Wensleydale, Ben and Sam focus on treating the curds with the upmost care. Yoredale differs in the fact that Ben and Sam have adapted the recipe slightly, draining the whey out earlier to develop a softer, creamier end texture down the line when it sits proudly on our cheeseboards and we’re all very happy! Yoredale is matured for 3-4 months.
Last, but in no means least, is Stonebeck, the third of our farmhouse Wensleydale cheeses. Stonebeck is made by the Hattan family in Nidderdale, using raw milk sourced from their ‘collection’ of rare breed Northern Dairy Shorthorn cows, a lovely docile breed that was prevalent in the Northern regions pre-WWI – it’s incredible to think the Hattans now have 10% of the global population of Northern Dairy Shorthorns. The Hattans prize themselves on farming alongside nature, meaning that they produce nutrient-rich dairy produce whilst looking to improve the biodiversity on the farm, for example, restoring ancient hay meadows to encourage ground-nesting birds, and when cut late in the summer, provides natural forage for their animals in winter. Stonebeck is matured 3-5 months.
Farmhouse cheese in general is often inconsistent, wonderfully so. It’s something I have always believed in celebrating when the food and farming standards are so high as with these three cheesemakers. The beauty and uniqueness of farmhouse cheese lies with its quality and sourcing of milk, production methods and locality, the latter otherwise known as terroir. Only made 30-40 miles apart and made to the same ‘Dales’ recipe, each cheese is so subtly different in flavour – if you are able to, you must try these cheeses one after the other to see the real differences.
So, what’s the difference in taste between the three Wensleydales? Fellstone is known to be supple, bouncy and full of fruity notes. Yoredale is a slightly crumblier, cleaner, lactic tasting cheese, a classic profile of Wensleydale. Whereas Stonebeck is full of rich, powerful savoury notes, a true old-fashioned version using native breeds and focusing on a pasture-fed system, described by Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy as ‘a cheese that is closer to the cow’s tail’!
The Courtyard Dairy and Andrew Hattan who makes Stonebeck
This leads me perfectly onto questioning, why the resurgence in farmhouse Wensleydale cheese? Well, the answer lies in a couple of reasons, the first being small dairy farms diversifying their product. Ben Spence, who makes Yoredale at The Curlew Dairy, tells me, “Milk as a commodity has been significantly undervalued for a very long time, and for small dairy farms like us who want to survive within the industry, they need to look at ways to diversify their product and add value. You are then able to become a price-maker rather than a price-taker, so we have chosen to make farmhouse cheese.”
Another reason is the strong community in the area, notably stemming from one person, Andy Swinscoe, who runs, alongside his wife Kathy, the multi award-winning cheesemongers, The Courtyard Dairy – one of my all-time favourite shops in the whole wide world. Each of the three cheesemakers came to the “instrumental” Andy Swinscoe with the idea to make a raw milk cheese. Andy was the person who suggested making a farmhouse Wensleydale cheese in the first instance, using a traditional ‘Dales’ recipe he had sourced from a couple of early-twentieth century books called Cheesemaking from the Ministry of Agriculture and Cheese & Butter, the latter a picture book. Ben adds, “It’s due to Andy’s passion and enthusiasm, because without him, we wouldn’t be here making cheese.”
I went to visit Andy and Kathy at The Courtyard Dairy, after a couple of days visiting the three cheesemakers. Andy said, “I believe, as a cheesemonger, we should stock the cheese of our region and they [the three farmhouse Wensleydale cheeses] should be a reflection of that. It would be nice to see this echoed in different regions of the British Isles.”
This resurgence of farmhouse Wensleydale is just one fantastic example of a few passionate people working together to produce local food for their local community, bucking the trend of our food system which seems to be steadily slipping towards ever more centralisation and standardisation.
It is clear to see the utter dedication and hard work that Andy and Kathy at The Courtyard Dairy and the three cheesemakers have put into making this resurgence happen. In this 30-mile radius of the North, they are almost single-handily reviving a-once lost piece of their rural heritage, celebrating ancient traditions and methods of production, stimulating economic growth by supporting local businesses and providing jobs, all the while celebrating and creating delicious, nutrient-rich foods. We just need more Swinscoes, Noblets, Spences and Hattans populating our regional lands.
The three farmhouse Wensleydales can be found at any good cheesemonger like The Courtyard Dairy, Neal's Yard Dairy and many listed at the back of A Portrait of British Cheese.
The Resurgence of Farmhouse Wensleydale
Words & Photography by Angus D. Birditt | @ourisles