I am old enough that the hot minute of clay animation holding the entire world's attention coincided precisely with the stage of my life where I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
And by that, I mean that I begged my mother incessantly to take me to see Chicken Run (2000) at a movie theatre, even though I hadn’t even seen the trailer. I just thought that the premise - a bunch of cute chickens trying to escape being baked into a chicken pot pie - sounded morbid enough for it to be cool.
Morbidity, you see, was the mandatory aspect I looked for in all media I consumed, ever since I had turned six and decided that The X-Files was the coolest show ever created, closely followed by a lesser-known (but even more morbid) Poltergeist: The Legacy.
What I didn’t expect was that I would get one of the best animated movies ever made (it’s not me who decided that! It was the critics!), with sharp humor, great pacing, and some of the best character writing most “grown-up movies” wish they had. It was a little short on morbidity, but there was a sequence of cute chickens being put through a machine for the pot pies, so I didn’t complain.
By the time Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit hit the theatres in 2005, I was one of the people at the front of the queue on the opening weekend. But I was there as someone who was excited to see a new cartoon with excellent animation and horror elements. I had no idea who Wallace and Gromit were or the tremendous impact they had on Britain and British culture since they first hit the screens in 1989.
We see how popular culture can inspire interest in certain foods all the time. Sex and the City made Magnolia bakery cupcakes the trendiest pastry in town for a hot minute. Naruto drove hundreds of fans to try ramen and dango. And I’ll honestly be surprised if bagel consumption doesn’t go up after this year’s brilliant Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Still, all of that impact pales with the influence Wallace and Gromit boast. See, it took them less than a decade to accumulate the kind of power that pretty much single-handedly ensured one of the oldest English cheeses would remain accessible for mass consumption. That English cheese was Wensleydale.
What Kind of Cheese is Wensleydale?
There are several varieties of Wensleydale cheese, but in conversation, it’s usually the younger and milder Wensleydale that people refer to when not specifying otherwise.
Initially made exclusively with sheep’s milk, the production switched mainly to pasteurized cow’s milk over time. However, it’s not uncommon for a mix of cow and sheep milk to be used, especially among small artisans who are more prone to experimenting than large commercial creameries.
This type of Wensleydale is a medium cheese with a texture ranging from semi-soft to semi-hard, but always supple, moist, rich, and crumbly. Its moisture level and, subsequently, the softness of the crumble depends on the length of maturation, but it’s not supposed to be as hard as, say, cheddar.
The cheese is usually milky-white in color, but it’s common for it to take a more colorful hue when dried fruit is added to the paste. Cranberries are the oldest and most popular pairing, adding a bright purplish color to the cheese, but apricots and blueberries have become almost as popular, and other flavor combinations like lemon, mango, pineapple, etc. are becoming more and more common.
What Does Wensleydale Cheese Taste Like?
Young, unaged Wensleydale cheese is somewhat sweet but with strong tart undertones to the flavor. It has a gentle creaminess and well-set nuttiness that strengthens as the cheese ages.
If the cheese is made with a mixture of cow and sheep milk instead of just cow milk, it’ll bear subtle grassy and earthy notes characteristic of all cheese made with sheep milk.
One distinct flavor characteristic of Wensleydale cheese bears is a slight honey aroma and aftertaste.
The Different Types of Wensleydale Cheese:
Wensleydale cheese is typically separated into several types determined by the length of aging, ingredients it’s made with, and the place of production.
Yorkshire Wensleydale is the typical slightly aged cheese, semi-soft, tart, with a bit of honey aroma. It’s the only Wensleydale cheese variety with protected status, having been granted PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) in 2013. It can be shaped in different sizes, from a small, flat disc that is highly pressed and preserved in wax ("truckle") to large wheels.
Mature Wensleydale is typically aged for around six months and has a harder texture, with a more robust and nutty flavor.
Extra Mature Wensleydale is matured for over nine months; it’s the hardest and most complex flavor-wise among Wensleydale cheeses, with a sharp aftertaste.
Oak Smoked Wensleydale is cold smoked, with a drier and highly-crumbly texture. It has a more earthy, toasty flavor, with a highly acidic tang to it, with hardly any sweetness.
Blue Wensleydale is infused with blue mold to give it the signature blue veins. It’s more sharply flavored than other Wensleydale cheeses, even the oak smoked one, but overall more mellow and less salty than different blue cheeses like Gorgonzola, Roquefort, and Britain’s own Blue Stilton. It was invented in the 19th century by a man named Thomas Nuttall (the cheesemaker, not the renowned botanist).
Blended Wensleydale is typically separated into its own category, even though it’s generally made with young cheese, aged only around three months. This is the variety that’s flavored with additional ingredients like fruits, honey, and, sometimes, garlic and herbs.
Unpasteurized Wensleydale cheese is a rarer product, most often handcrafted at small artisan shops. It has a more complex, creamier but also tangier flavor, with a rich and buttery texture.
Who are Wallace and Gromit?
Wallace and Gromit are the most famous claymation cartoon characters in the world. But with a caveat: the largest part of their fanbase is homegrown. The rest of the world hardly knows about them, especially nowadays when their last on-screen appearance was in 2010.
Wallace is an airheaded inventor who delights in creating elaborate machines that rarely work as they’re supposed to. He’s very traditionally British in his appearance, down to his wool trousers and knitted sweater vest. And (this will be important later) he’s very fond of cheese and crackers.
Gromit is the actual brains of the duo, never mind that he’s a beagle. He’s very good with electronics, loves playing chess, is a good cook, and can fly an airplane. We know all this because he occasionally demonstrates these (and more) skills when he and Wallace get into another absurd adventure. And make no mistake: their adventures are as absurd as it gets.
It’s one of the main charms of the entire franchise, humor being the other.
The wildest part is that their main appearances are limited to four shorts and one feature film (two of the shorts and the feature film have all won Oscars, by the way. I feel like this is vital information).
And yet, they’ve spawned multiple comics, tv series, add appearances, and even spin-off characters, with Shaun the Sheep being the most popular. Maybe him, you’ve heard of, since his show has been running for 15 years now and moved to Netflix in 2020.
Wallace and Gromit are one of those staple culturally important characters everyone in their native country knows, but their popularity remains largely local. I’d say they’re the same as French Bécassine, a comic strip character most French people would recognize in their sleep but holds almost no cultural value outside the country.
But they’ve proven more than once (Oscars! Three of them!) that when they come onto the screens, it's impossible not to fall in love. So we can hardly blame the British people for allowing them to change their consumption patterns!
Ok, Sure, They Sound Cute! But What Do Clay Animation Characters Have to Do with Wensleyday Cheese?
It’s odd to think that less than three decades ago, a cheese with a recorded history that dates back to the 12th century could be relegated to small artisanal shops, and that would be the best-case scenario.
And yet. And yet.
Wensleydale cheese consumption had apparently decreased so much by the 1990s that the primary commercial producer, Wensleydale Creamery, was in a severe bind. Their product just wasn’t selling so much to keep the establishment afloat. And they were the primary producer of the Wensleydale cheese at the time. If someone was buying Wensleydale, more likely than not that Wensleydale was coming from the Wensleydale Creamery.
It took six years and three animated shorts from Wensleydale cheese consumption to increase to the levels that the company escaped the impending closure. All because people loved Wallace and Gromit so much that they started to emulate them. And Wensleydale is Wallace’s favorite cheese.
Make no mistake; it’s not just a throwaway claim. Being a cheese connoisseur is just as big a character trait for Wallace as being an inventor is. The entire plot of the first animated short about the two revolves around the idea that the moon is made from Wensleydale cheese, so when they discover they have no cheese at home, Wallace builds a rocket so they can go to the moon and get some (I was not kidding about the absurdity of it all).
Nick Park, the creator of Wallace and Gromit, wasn’t even that much of a fan of Wensleydale cheese, if you believe him! He just thought animating the way it’s pronounced with the stop motion technique would be interesting!
Interestingly, the phenomenon somewhat repeated itself in 2005, when the feature-length movie dropped. While at this point, Wensleydale cheese wasn’t in any danger anymore, it significantly benefitted from the franchise, with sales increasing by 23%.
Visit the Yummy Bazaar Cheese Store for More Gourmet and Specialty Cheese:
Here at Yummy Bazaar, you can easily select and buy cheese online! We host a large and carefully curated selection from premier cheese manufacturers from multiple countries. Want to check out other English cheese? Maybe add a few classic French options? Or expand your choice to more overlooked cheeses that aren’t easily found on supermarket isles? Welcome to our cheese store! Simply choose what strikes your fancy, and we’ll take care of the rest!
Image Sources: Images of Wallace and Gromit are sourced from their official website.