Fruitcake paired with cheese – weird or wonderful?
An old rugby pal of mine from London decided to pay a visit to Yorkshire with his family before Covid struck. We ended up going with his kids to The Forbidden Corner in Middleham and afterwards paid a visit to the café for our lunch. He was horrified that I chose a big chunk of fruitcake with a thick slice of Wensleydale cheese sitting on top. Whilst I explained it was a Yorkshire thing, I was met with the response of “you Northerners are just weird!”.
As a Blue Badge tour guide, I would regularly stop on my Yorkshire Dales or Herriot Country Tours at the Wensleydale Creamery to sample their cheeses. My mainly overseas clients were also very intrigued to see fruit cakes being sold in the cheese shop, and I would often buy a small cake (made in Hawes by Cockett’s) and a chunk of Wensleydale for them to sample. The majority after trying the combination were converted and thought it a wonderful idea!
On this basis I thought that it was worth exploring the history of this Yorkshire tradition, to try and ascertain when it originated or if it was just a modern fad?
As a cheese and fruitcake fan, there are many types of cheese which work well with a rich fruitcake, but whether through its link to the animated characters Wallace & Grommit, Wensleydale Cheese seems to be a go to cheese for the pairing.
It is believed that the reason for this is that Wensleydale cheese when it was originally made at farms rather than at a creamery in Hawes was a Winter cheese. It was made in Spring and Summer, but not mature enough to eat until Christmas. Being seen as a Christmas cheese originally it would seem logical that it was the cheese of choice to be eaten with Christmas cake.
This also ties in with the research of food historian Peter Brears who has traced the tradition back to Victorian times. He discovered the first written reference is found in a book dating to 1871 by Joseph Lucas called Studies in Nidderdale. Within the book there is a recipe for Yule Cake which was essentially how to make small individual fruit cakes which were used as follows...
“On Christmas Eve one Yule Cake is given to each member of the family, along with a piece of Christmas cheese. As a rule, part of it is left for Christmas morning, and eaten at the breakfast.”
This Yorkshire tradition has now been adapted and adopted by other Northern regions with Lancashire cheese now being paired with local currant filled eccles cakes.
It is interesting that Andy Swinscoe former Cheesemonger of the Year and owner of the Courtyard Diary cheese shop in the Dales stated that he had more requests at Christmas for cheese to go with Christmas cake than sales of Stilton.
For all the horror of combining cheese with fruitcake from those based down South, I always find it strange that they would find it so unusual. After all, people don’t consider it strange to eat chutney with cheese and appreciate the fruity flavours complimenting the cheese.
I tried to come up with a definitive poll by sharing a video on my Instagram story of me eating Fruitcake and Wensleydale cheese whilst watching a footie game and asking the question whether it was acceptable. The results were unanimously in favour by 80% to 20%. But before I can lay the debate to rest, I did a quick check on where my 14,000 Instagram followers were based and about 80% were from Yorkshire, but at least it confirmed we are proud of this tradition up here!
Many years ago in a past life I was lucky enough to launch an online cheese magazine called The Cheeseboard, you can still find a couple of old issues online on ISSUU. I met Andy Swinscoe at a few cheese events and have been to his Courtyard Dairy to buy cheese a number of times as well as to attend a cheese making course last year. If you love cheese it is worth visiting his website as he does sell the most amazing selection of local and weird and wonderful cheeses - www.thecourtyarddairy.co.uk
It’s worth leaving the last word to Andy who when asked to recommend a cheese to go with a rich fruitcake suggests “ A crumbly cheese, around 2-3 months old with a fresh, zesty and clean flavour with a sharp finish. A local Wensleydale cheese is ideal with its lactic bite offsetting the rich curranty notes of the moist fruitcake.”
“You need a surprisingly large slice of cheese to balance out the sweetness of the cheese”- Patrick MgGuigan (Cheese writer)
So there you go non-believers give it a try – believe me it is wonderful!