The poor fruitcake has gotten a bad rap over the past few decades, and not just a cellophane wrap. People misunderstand its booze-infused density and dank fruitiness, chalking up the decision to give such a gift as nothing more than a misguided antiquated ritual. But Yorkshire natives will not be dissuaded from enjoying the holiday loaf and, furthermore, from topping the succulent slice with a thick layer of piquant cheese.
In England, a Christmas cake refers to the dried fruit–speckled, rum-soaked round that many other cultures simply call fruitcake. Ideally, the cake is made ahead of time—up to two months—allowing the ingredients to mellow and blend as they receive a regular dowsing of alcohol. But how did cheese come to accompany the holiday treat? According to food historian Peter Brears, the creative combo comes from the Victorian era, specifically in Wensleydale, Yorkshire. Wensleydale is also home to an eponymous cow’s milk (formerly sheep’s milk) cheese that, at the time, was made only during the summer and reached maturity right around the Christmas season. Folks found that the sharp and crumbly cheese—either perched atop or eaten alongside the cake—paired perfectly with the moist, rich baked good, and a tradition was born.
The Christmas custom has remained mostly a delight confined to Yorkshire, but that may change. As typical Yorkshire cheeses such as Wensleydale, Lancashire, and Cheshire have made their way across the country, so has interest in the special pairing. Northern British affineurs (cheesemongers), such as Andy Swinscoe of The Courtyard Dairy, have spread the good word, offering a variety of yule cake couplings ranging from veiny blues to fine fetas.
Where to Try It
The Courtyard DairyCrows Nest Barn, Austwick, Nr. Settle, LA2 8AS, United Kingdom
The Courtyard Dairy offers the pairing for mail order, including a fruitcake especially made for cheese and the Richard III Wensleydale (cheese). If you're in northern England, you can also pay them a visit.