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Traditional cheesemaking

Wednesday 23 May, 2018, by Karen Griffiths

We’ve just  thoroughly enjoyed watching The Courtyard Dairy’s Cheese Chat Video featuring Lancashire cheese maker Graham Kirkham talking about his family’s cheese making traditions. He describes how his grandmother passed on her cheese making knowledge to his mother and how, after years of cheese making he finds himself coming full circle with a return to the more traditional styles of cheese that his grandmother had been making all those years earlier.
This reminded us of an interview with Kit Calvert that we’ve had passed to us from an unidentified publication.
It’s titled ‘The King of Wensleydale’. We’ll be writing more about the crucial role that Kit Calvert played in saving the Wensleydale Creamery in Hawes later, but for the moment it’s interesting to read what he had to say about traditional cheese making in Wensleydale:

” ‘What a cheese it was,’ he sighs ‘creamy and moist and totally white in colour with an absolutely unique flavour’…’ Before the [Second World] war we could hardly make it fast enough sometimes. Although there were 176 Wensleydale farmhouse cheesemakers officially registered with the Milk Marketing Board. Then came the war and cheese had to be rationed. The Ministry of Food sent a man up to grade our cheese, and as soon as he arrived at our dairy he down-graded the whole lot. He said the moisture content was too high and there was not enough acidity… The cheese made at the farms had to be tested by the same man. You can imagine what the farmer’s wife said when the cheese with which she had been winning prizes for years was graded third or fourth. They were proud people, proud of the skill which had been handed down from generation to generation. There was all hell let loose in the dale and eventually they just chucked it, one after the other.'”
Extract from ‘King of Wensleydale’ (unknown author and publication).

An old black and white image of Kit Calvert smoking a pipe in a field
Kit Calvert

After the war and the end of rationing it seems that the Milk Marketing Board realised its mistake and asked Kit to help them re-establish traditional Wensleydale cheese making:
“… so they sent two gentlemen up to me with a list of all the 176. They asked me to go around with them and try to entice the farmers back into making cheese the old way. I told them they were on a wasted journey because of the way the wives had been treated, but I took them round all the same. We visited every one of those 176 farms and we couldn’t persuade any one of them to start up again. Not one.”
Interestingly even when Kit tried to produce the old style of cheese at the dairy, his workers had almost forgotten how to make it and his customers had lost the taste for it, “Shopkeepers would say ‘What are you trying to sell us – water?’ There was just no getting back. Real Wensleydale cheese died in the early 1940s.”
The better price that farmers could obtain for liquid milk from the Milk Marketing Board had its part to play in the demise of farmhouse cheese making in Wensleydale as did the desire of the women involved to be released from the heavy work it entailed. As Marie Hartley and Joan Ingilby record when they visited Wensleydale in the mid 1930s:
“Except on a few isolated farms the day seems to have gone when the farmers’ wives made cheese and butter, and with it has gone some of the romance of the farmhouses when rows of cheeses stood in the cheese rooms, and butter and cheese on the dairy shelves. But cheesemaking, which had to be done every morning from May to September, was heavy work.”
Marie Hartley & Joan Ingilby (1936) ‘Wensleydale’

Heavy work indeed, but skilled and highly-valued. We’ll be looking at the crucial role that women played in cheese making in our next blog post.

Picture of Karen Griffiths

Karen Griffiths

Interpretation Officer for the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority


2 Replies to “Traditional cheesemaking”

  1. John Boulton says:

    I’ve just started to make my own cheese; fed up with the commercial stuff on the supermarket shelves and wanting something more personal. I find it interesting that, from the above conversations of Kit Calvert, and I know Wensleydale and Swaledale well, the farmers wives had no access to “cheese caves” and no hygrometers, probably not even a decent thermometer! and yet they made superb cheeses, each individual batch from each farm would have it’s own character. One wonders if modern cheese making, with its cheese caves and strict temperature and humidity controls, is often going down a standardising route that we cheese lovers are trying to escape from? Perhaps we should step back a bit further and consider, what can I make this month? at this temperature, at his humidity. Or even say: I wonder what this will turn out like? And enjoy even if it is not “Perfect Cheddar” or “Perfect Lancashire”. We need more cheese makers!

    • Good luck with your new project. Although dairy farms didn’t own ‘caves’ the dairy and cheese rooms were usually on the north side of the farmhouse with maybe one small window protected by a metal grill which could be opened to allow cool air in. Stone floors and shelved also kept the rooms cool. The women who made cheese learned their skills from their mothers and grandmothers before them. Skills now sadly lost in the drive for a more scientific/standardised approach as you suggest.

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