How far would you go for cheese? Not the sweaty, pre-sliced stuff, but some real Yorkshire quality with a bit of bite and so much flavour that you would give your mortgage money for the right bottle of red to be within reach.
The cheese in question is Yorkshire Wensleydale, recently awarded the dreadfully-named but very important European Protected Geographical Indication status meaning that if you buy it, it’s from this most beautiful part of the county and not some imposter from the South.
With tremendous customer loyalty already in place, Wensleydale Creamery MD David Hartley knows he has got the product right – and is blessed with the inbuilt dream location – but is also well aware of the challenges ahead. “People have to make a choice to come to Hawes and when you think of customers travelling from Kendal, Skipton, Darlington or the Dales you have to provide a destination that is worth the trip.
“The visitor centre was first developed in 1994, but in 2010 we rebuilt it and added a restaurant and coffee shop and, of course, a large cheese shop to maximise the views we have in all directions. Since that investment the business has grown pretty well and the visitor centre side now accounts for about ten per cent of the whole business.”
The work to protect the brand now brings more than 250,000 visitors on their various journeys each year. Each one is an ‘engager’ for David and his team, getting to know the brand and what it means to the region and taking that message away to their local shops, where the battle to be first choice among so many shelves of cheese is a top priority.
Here, European designations can be brushed aside if ‘Grandma Doreen’s Homemade Cheddar’ is half price for a week.
The brand’s own loyalty to the region is another good reason to buy. It is an integral part of Yorkshire life, having been first crafted in the 12th Century by a group of Cistercian monks. In 1897 (remembered in the name of the coffee shop on the site) the first creamery was built in Hawes.
“I don’t see a company like ours with a £26m turnover as a big company – we are a typical SME, so we don’t have a massive marketing budget. So we need a plan centred around the visitor centre where customers can see the product and appreciate that we are a retailer and a caterer as well.
“We take all those things incredibly seriously so it is a very real ambition for us to be a restaurant destination worth a day out, alongside being the perfect networking base for a morning business meeting where visitors can have a coffee and get the laptops out.”
David joined the company as production manager in 1990, moving from Kendal Creamery. In November 1992 he and three colleagues, along with local entrepreneur John Gibson sealed a management buyout in the wake of closure plans announced by Dairy Crest.
“We always had a plan and a belief,” says David. “When you have such a fantastic history – with people like Kit Calvert who led the company for more than 30 years – for it then to stop and someone say there is no more viability in Wensleydale cheese, that’s just ridiculous.
“We trade on tradition and history and authenticity and all of that, but we have to be relevant and innovative for today’s consumer. We have to take the business forward all the time, but we all genuinely love the area and the products and that is so important.”
Kit Calvert is a key name in the company’s history – and there is a lot of him in David. Back in the industrial depression of the 1930s struggling farmers who had been working for Mr Edward Chapman, a corn and provisions merchant of Hawes, were offered contracts by the Milk Marketing Board to take dales milk to a national dairy miles away.
The farmers, although they were creditors of Mr Chapman, were adamant that the Hawes dairy should continue. One of them, Kit Calvert, called a meeting in the Town Hall and gathered enough support to rescue the dairy and lay the foundations for what we see today. That Wensleydale determination is still here.
Just as it did back in the 1930s, the importance of the company goes beyond the food shelves and becomes a strand of Yorkshire business life that helps bind together the community. The creamery uses 41 of the very finest local farms for its milk, which is now all made in Wensleydale after a £4.5m investment, which allowed the blending (savour the flavour of cranberry, ginger and apricot) and packaging operation to be based in Kirkby Malzeard near Ripon.
The blended market and the crumbly cheese market are key battlegrounds for all cheesemakers and David is one of the Big Cheeses masterminding the strategy that will keep his company one truckle ahead of the rest.
“The whole Wensleydale market is worth about £15m at retail, with the whole crumbly market at about £40m, including Wensleydale. But if you look at the blended market, with its savoury and sweet flavours, that is worth around £90m and is growing. So it is really important that we get a strong share of the Wensleydale market, a good share of the crumbly market and are a serious player in the blended cheese category.
“It is also the blended sector that often translates itself into sales for the export market. It is all about looking for a good base cheese like Wensleydale and thinking about the latest food trends and how we might combine the two. There is a lot of bad blending going on at the moment where someone will just throw two flavours together and convince themselves it will taste good.
“So we have set up a new product development team who really carefully plan ahead and have become very successful at knowing what will work and what levels of flavour to use.
“We are cheesemakers and are known for that, but we will always be innovating around that.”
The region is seeing a surge of activity in the food and drink sector – and legends like Wensleydale Creamery are the bedrock of that activity. There are clusters of home-grown businesses helping each other out and sharing their experiences, but like the food and drink itself, there is also very organic growth.
“We are in touch with a whole network of agencies like UKTI and Welcome to Yorkshire as well as events like the Great Yorkshire Show, which has a fantastic tradition of promoting produce and food,” said David. “There are also great retailers keen on supporting local entrepreneurs, and that includes the big supermarkets.
“Then there are outstanding restaurants and chefs like Brian Turner and Stephanie Moon, cheesemakers like Swaledale and Shepherds Purse and breweries like Black Sheep and countless other small operations.
“You will always have to have fresh blood coming into the system because the market is changing all the time and we need those new skills here. We have all been here a long time, but we also need to see the outside world as well.”
I can certainly testify that cheese is addictive. If I come in from a long day at the BQ Yorkshire laptop and I know there is a chunk of cheese to be had, that’s my ‘starter’ sorted. So is it really bad for me or is there a headline soon to be written that says ‘Scientists reveal cheese and beer actually very good for you’?
“We continue to understand that the quality of the product we supply is non-negotiable and while cheese contains fat, as so many people tell us, it also has protein and minerals and is a very healthy food,” says David, reassuringly. “Cheese has a fantastic part to play as part of a balanced diet and should be an important part of everyone’s eating plan. There will be cheese in 99% of fridges around the country, so it is about us being a part of that market. At the moment we don’t do a reduced fat cheese, but we might look at that in the future.
“We talk a lot about how to use cheese so that it is not all about sandwiches and cheeseboards. It is great in soups, salads, on toast or with meat, or how about stuffing your chicken with Wensleydale and Cranberry?
“When we had a retailer visit the site recently, we served tomato and basil soup with Wensleydale crumbled into it. On the same menu we had mini macaroni cheese, grilled chicken with a blue cheese sauce and a three-cheese quiche, just to show off the versatility of it. We have also recently worked with the Yorkshire Provender soup company at Leeming Bar to make a Cauliflower Cheese soup.
“Personally I like a brown bread and Wensleydale sandwich with good quality tomato and cracked black pepper and sea salt – and a beer!”
It is surprising he has time for that sandwich, having just bought a bike to get some more cycling done at the same time as taking on a new pup to go with his two Cocker Spaniel gundogs, aged nine and six. His oldest daughter is heading off to university to study food production and marketing at Harper Adams and the youngest is just starting her GCSEs. There is also fishing and a good friend who is a grouse moor keeper, so plenty of chance to pursue the country skills he loves.
The future for the company is being built on a very strong technical base and a global reputation. The innovation and investment will continue hand-in-hand with each other and the export opportunities will only grow in places like the Middle East. Yoghurts and butter are already on the shelves with strong branding and there is physical space at Hawes to expand where necessary.
Yorkshire entrepreneurs – with their legendary dogged determination to make something work – have left the county with no option other than to be the national centre for home-cooked businesses, just by the sheer number of them making beautiful food that will literally stop you in the street. You won’t find forgotten Yorkshire food lurking behind the open bag of pasta at the back of your kitchen cupboard. You will already have eaten it all.