Category: Cheese

| Books, Cheese, Pie Fidelity

Long Read: A Tale of Two Cheeses

My new book, Pie Fidelity: In Defence of British Food, is finally published today after two-and-a-half-years’ hard work. To celebrate, here’s another off-cut that didn’t quite make the main text. One of the main themes of the book is that we don’t celebrate our food culture in the UK as much as other nations celebrate theirs. When I started researching the book, I realised I’d first written about this back in 2010, when I did a bit of research into European Protected Designations of Origin (PDOs) – the regulations that stipulate where and how something must be made if you want to give it a particular name, such as champagne, cognac or Cumberland sausage. I found the different stories of Wensleydale and Roquefort to be quite staggering I what they reveal. The Roquefort part below is intact on the book, but I went on to write at length about cheddar, so there was no room for my nine year-old story of Wensleydale. Here it is then, in its original form.

‘The term culture … includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people; Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, 19th-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar. The reader can make his own list …’

TS Eliot,Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, 1948

One of France’s most celebrated cheeses is produced in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in the south of the country. The town’s cheesy fame allegedly dates back to Pliny the Elder, who supposedly lauded it in his CE79 work, the Natural History

Pliny was certainly a fan of cheese generally, writing, ‘It is a remarkable circumstance, that the barbarous nations which subsist on milk have been for so many ages either ignorant of the merits of cheese, or else have totally disregarded it’. But what fans of Roquefort don’t tell you is that Pliny’s mention was ambiguous, and not exactly complementary. In a chapter where he details all the fine cheeses available in Rome, ‘where the various good things of all nations are to be judged of by comparison’, he says, ‘Goats also produce a cheese which has been of late held in the highest esteem, its flavour being heightened by smoking it. The cheese of this kind which is made at Rome is considered preferable to any other; for that which is made in Gaul has a strong taste, like that of medicine’. 

What we now understand to be Roquefort cheese is not smoked, and is not made from goat’s milk. When Pliny says this cheese was made in Gaul, that could mean anywhere in a region that today encompasses France, Luxembourg, Belgium, most of Switzerland, Northern Italy, as well as the parts of the Netherlands and Germany on the west bank of the Rhine. And anyway, Pliny didn’t like it that much because it tasted of medicine. This could mean he’s referring to the chemical hit of a ripe blue cheese, but even if that’s the case, it’s doubtful Roquefort cheese was unique in this. But never mind all that: if you’re marketing a food icon, when the legend becomes fact, we invariably print the legend.

Prehistoric cheese-making colanders have allegedly been discovered near the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, and what is undeniable is that it has the perfect conditions to make great cheese. The region is honeycombed with caves formed by faults in the mountain cliffs, and these faults channel a gentle flow of air into the caves that creates a fairly constant temperature of between eight and twelve degrees and keeps the humidity high. These are perfect conditions for the growth of a mould known as Penicillium roqueforti. This mould, plus reliable access to salt from the Mediterranean, led to the evolution the soft, blue, salty, cave-aged cheese we now know as Roquefort. 

The cheese was popularised by local Benedictine monks from the 11thcentury, and soon other monasteries in the area were buying caves to make their own. In 1411, Charles VI granted the town of Roquefort a monopoly for the ripening of the cheese in these caves – the first ever appellation d’origine– meaning only producers in the town could use its name. In 1961, a landmark ruling decreed that while similar maturation methods could be used across southern France, only those whose ripening occurred in the natural caves of Mont Combalou were permitted to bear the name Roquefort. On top of that, the milk must be whole and raw, the sheep it comes from must be Lacuane dairy sheep, and they must be fed on pasture.

Today, much of the economic activity in the region centres on the production and distribution of the cheese. A visitor’s centre run by the Roquefort Caves Society illustrates the process of making Roquefort cheese, gives a guided tour of the caves, and offers guests free samples and a chance to buy cheese. Despite still only being produced locally, Roquefort is enjoyed around the world and considered one of the best blue cheeses ever made. 

It’s a great story, a fantastic cheese, and a symbol of how food and drink can come to define a region, or even a nation. Now let’s compare that story to one of Britain’s most famous cheeses.

French monks also seemingly brought the art of cheese making to Wensleydale, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, when they settled in the region around 1150. The cheese they made was originally blue and made from sheep’s milk, allegedly because Norman nobles wanted a local equivalent to Roquefort. When Henry VIII dissolved their monastery at Jervaulx in 1540, the monks passed on the art of Wensleydale cheese making to the wives of the local farmers who had supplied their milk. In 1897, local merchant Edward Chapman became the first commercial Wensleydale cheesemaker when he opened a creamery in the village of Hawes. 

Wensleydale is now made mostly from cow’s milk with a little sheep’s milk added for flavour. The Hawes creamery in Wensleydale still makes a blue cheese among others, but since the 1930s the cheese we now think of as Wensleydale has been white and hard. It has an open, welcoming aspect to it, a crumbly texture, with a mild, clean, flavour that has faint hints of lemon and honey. It gets these characteristics from the local milk, delivered fresh to the creamery within a few hours of milking, from cows grazed on rich, wildflower meadows down in the valleys, and heather moorlands further up the slopes. The cultures used to make the cheese go through a unique and complex system that combines mother cultures of different levels of maturity.

Through the twentieth century, Wensleydale gained a reputation as one of the best British cheeses, and a hallmark of what is great about British culture. In his essay ‘In Defence of English Cooking’, Orwell wrote, ‘I fancy Stilton is the best cheese of its type in the world, with Wensleydale not far behind’, while TS Eliot proclaimed Wensleydale ‘the Mozart of cheese’. 

Wensleydale is therefore comparable to Roquefort in many ways. They taste quite different: Roquefort is rich and salty and creamy and probably not to everyone’s tastes, while Wensleydale is straightforward and friendly and perhaps a little plain for cheese aficionados. But both are famous cheeses acknowledged as some of the best in their style. Apart from flavour, they differ in one more important aspect: while Roquefort was the first ever cheese to be given a protected designation of origin, Wensleydale was never given any kind of protection or formal acknowledgement at all until it was almost too late. 

During and after the Second World War, with milk production commandeered by the government, the Wensleydale creamery in Hawes began to struggle. In 1966, it was sold to the Milk Marketing Board, which in 1980 separated off its milk processing division to become Dairy Crest, which in turn floated on the Stock Exchange in 1996. By the time of its flotation, Dairy Crest was a business with a broad portfolio of dairy-based products, with little place for historical tradition and local terroirin its brand marketing save for imagery and loose claims that focus-grouped well. In May 1992, the corporation closed down the Wensleydale Creamery with the loss of 59 jobs, and announced their intention to transfer production of Wensleydale cheese out of Yorkshire and into a factory in Lancashire. They were both just cheese factories after all, so why would that matter? And it’s not as if there was any kind of historical rivalry between the two counties that meant the move might upset people. 

As it turned out, there was quite a lot of resistance to the move, and six months later a management buy-out succeeded in bringing Wensleydale back home, hiring eleven former members of staff to ensure the cheese was on sale again by Christmas. But sales refused to pick up, and Wensleydale continued to struggle.

Film-maker Nick Park had no idea of any of this when he made his animated films A Grand Day Out (1989), The Wrong Trousers(1993) and A Close Shave(1995), featuring cheese-loving Wallace and his resourceful dog Gromit. In the third film, Wallace falls in love with Wendolene Ramsbottom, a shopkeeper. But at the end of the film, with evil robot dogs vanquished and sheep saved, Wendolene reveals that she doesn’t like cheese. “Not even Wensleydale?” cries Wallace. No, it brings her out in a rash. The relationship is doomed, and Wendolene leaves. 

Park only chose the word ‘Wensleydale’ because he thought it would be funny to animate Wallace’s mouth saying it, as he put it, ‘nice and toothy’. But this whim had a dramatic effect. Demand began to pick up, and the creamery asked for and was given permission to launch a tie-in cheese using the characters’ names and likenesses. Sales soared. Wensleydale opened a new creamery in 2015, modernised but still using traditional techniques and local milk, and it now employs over 200 people. Oh, and ‘Yorkshire Wensleydale’ successfully acquired a European Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) in 2013. It requires the regional qualifier that ‘Aveyron Roquefort’ does not, because our historic disinterest in denominations of origin means that Wensleydale – like cheddar – has become too generic to enforce. This PGI is not quite as stringent as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) that Roquefort has held since 1925, but it’s a start. 

Like the difference between Champagne and Bass Ale, the differing fortunes of these two wonderful cheeses illustrates a wider gulf in how the British and French care for and view their food and drink. (I find it telling that, as I write this, whenever I type ‘Roquefort’, my ‘UK English’ spellcheck function is fine with it, but flags up a red, wavy line under every ‘Wensleydale’.)  The European system of geographic protection for foods came into operation in 1993. This means that within the area in which the scheme operates (and in countries with mutual agreements) regionally produced food and drink is protected from competitors passing themselves off as the same thing. At the time of writing in 2018, Britain has a total of 65 products with protected status. France has 217, Italy 267, and Portugal 125. Breaking that down, Britain has 16 protected cheeses, the French 52, the Italians 47. To be fair, this is a slight improvement from 2010, when France had more cheeses enjoying protected status than Britain had for all its products together. 

But now, that might not count for anything. The rules that protect Britain’s iconic foods are part of the European Union’s regulatory framework. When Britain leaves the EU, Wensleydale, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies, Stornoway Black Pudding, Cumberland black sausage and Cornish pasties will all lose the European-wide protection that means no one else can falsely claim theirs to be the real thing. 

Pie Fidelity is published by Particular Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
ISBN: 9781846149597
Length: 352 Pages
RRP: £16.99