From the earliest times, the farmers of Upper Swaledale relied on exchanging or selling butter in order to make up for the fact that they couldn’t grow staples such as oats that high up the Dale. Cheese seems to have been made and stored mostly for their own use, though by the end of the nineteenth century it seems to have replaced butter as a sale item, some of it going to feed miners up in the Durham coalfields. In the twentieth century, road and rail transport improved to the point that liquid milk became the item to sell and by 1950 the last Swaledale cheese in Muker had been made for sale. Read more on our earlier blog post about cheese-making.
We would love to know what that cheese was like. Some of our project participants remember their mothers making cheese in the farmhouse dairy of course but we’ve not recorded any recipes or memories of how it tasted. It may have been a pale crumbly cheese a bit like modern Wensleydale.
We were rather pleased to come across this description of local cheese and other dairy products written by Arthur Harwood Brierley and published in the Leeds Mercury newspaper in 1897:
“Wherever you go in this part of Yorkshire, you are reminded of the state of the German and Russian peasants, whose cries of woes are lusty and endless. It is however quite cheering to hear from the elders over your nip of pale Swaledale cheese at Muker or Keld, “made on the premises,” that Swaledale can supply the market with cheese equal, if not superior, to the widely famous Wensleydale brand. All the way from Keld to Gunnerside the pastures are fairly rich with trefoil and clover, and when spring drops her vernal blessings on the land they bubble up again in yellow cowslips and buttercups all over the pastures. Although Muker has abundant allotment pastures along the Swale, agricultural crops cannot be grown in the parish: straw, wheat and turnips must be carted in from abroad. The greater part of the land is absolute waste, belonging exclusively to sportsman and shepherd.
However, both at the King’s Head and the Queen’s Head I have had plenty of that thick cream “on which a penny would float”: and dishfuls of ham and eggs to perfection. And the living is so cheap that on one occasion I felt ashamed to pay my bill as it stood. The dale farmer lives by his butter and cheese, mutton and wool. “
The tradition of making cheese further down the dale has continued however and the Swaledale Cheese Company claim they preserve the original taste as learned from a Mrs Longstaff from Harkerside above Reeth. Read more on the Swaledale Cheese Company website.