Posted: 22/06/2021

Late cheesemaker was inspiration behind raw milk Wensleydale

It was the Wensleydale Creamery that coaxed The Home Farmer into making a raw milk version of a classic Yorkshire cheese

Late cheesemaker was inspiration behind raw milk Wensleydale

Dairy farmer Ben Spence was set for life as a yoghurt-maker when a courtesy call to his main customer ended up being one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments. Based in Wensleydale, the farm has long supplied Wensleydale Creamery with milk for its famous cheese, and Spence felt it only polite to check whether they were happy for some of it to go into yoghurt.  

“I rang up the MD David Hartley to see what he thought,” says Spence, who set up The Home Farmer at his family farm in Aysgarth with his wife Sam and brother Adam in 2016. “But then he started asking me whether I’d ever thought about making cheese. With the creamery so close by and already taking our milk, it had never occurred to me. But David really encouraged us to start making Wensleydale and it sent our life on an alternative tangent.”

With help from Hartley and the Creamery’s head cheesemaker Richard Clarke, the Spences built a new cheese-processing unit and developed a raw-milk, cloth-bound Wensleydale called Old Roan, which launched in 2019. It might seem odd that the Wensleydale Creamery would help a rival on its doorstep, but the difference in size between the two companies is vast. The Creamery produces 4,000 tonnes of cheese a year, sourcing milk from 40 local farms, while the Home Farmer only has 100 Friesian cows. “David just had a real passion to see a farmhouse producer set up in Wensleydale,” says Spence. 

Trading has been tricky for the start-up for obvious reasons, but it has secured listings with the Courtyard Dairy, Booths and The Fine Cheese Co, helped by its title as the only raw milk Wensleydale actually made in Wensleydale. Tragically, David Hartley passed away after a long battle with cancer in December, so was not able to witness the full extent of The Home Farmer’s progress. “He sent me a text saying how proud he was of what we’d achieved and wishing us all the best,” says Spence. “It’s really sad what happened.”

The company currently makes 300kg of cheese a week. It has the capacity to manufacture more than triple that, but Spence is cautious about increasing production too soon after he was left with “mountains” of cheese during the first two lockdowns. Thankfully, the company managed to clear the backlog with the help of The Courtyard Dairy and through its mobile shop in a converted horse trailer, complete with milk and cheese vending machines. “I’m nervous about making too much again,” says Spence. “We’ve not had a normal year of trading, so we’re putting our finger in the air to work out how much cheese to lay down.” 

The good news is that Old Roan only requires a few months of maturation, so the maturing room can be filled relatively quickly. It also means that it doesn’t take long to feel the benefit of recipe changes, as Spence looks to improve the cheese. “We were getting some bitterness at the beginning, but we’ve tweaked things and I’m much happier with how it’s tasting,” he says.

The cheese, like the business, is finding its feet after a difficult year, and Spence is optimistic for the future. “David always used to say that Yorkshire as a brand for food is really strong and Wensleydale is part of that. If we get it right, there’s no reason why the cheese can’t be sold across the country.”

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