How Yorkshire brought the world Christmas cake with cheese

Yorkshire is believed to be the home of eating Christmas cake with cheese in a tradition dating back to 19th Century. Josh Barrie reports on the county's gift to foodies.

In Yorkshire, people eat Christmas cake with cheese. They do in Lancashire, too, but the tradition is thought to have originated in God’s Own Country. Yorkshire-born food historian Peter Brears traced the combination as far back as Victorian times.

In Joseph Lucas’s 1871 book, Studies in Nidderdale, a passage reads: “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.”

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To some, particularly Southerners or others unversed on the matter, this might sound an odd medley. But cheese lends itself to fruit (for example chutney) and back then marzipan and icing, perhaps less satisfactory accompaniments, wouldn’t have featured. Today, the partnership is not confined to Yorkshire alone. At the The Courtyard Dairy in Settle, which first found Lucas’s book passage, cheese to partner Christmas cake outsells Stilton during December.

Christmas cake with cheese is a festive tradition in Yorkshire.Christmas cake with cheese is a festive tradition in Yorkshire.
Christmas cake with cheese is a festive tradition in Yorkshire.

While the combination has spread beyond Yorkshire’s rugged borders, it is Yorkshire through and through. After all, one of the county’s most famous exports, Wensleydale, was the first to be plated up alongside fruit cake.

Andy Swinscoe, The Courtyard Dairy’s owner, says Wensleydale’s “lactic bite offsets the dense, figgy, currenty notes of Christmas cake”. The cheese must be crumbly, the cake moist and dense. Cheese writer Patrick McGuigan says the marriage of cake and cheese is expansive and the possibilities are endless.

“Blue cheese and Christmas cake is a classic combo because the salty, buttery flavour of the cheese contrasts with the sweet, spicy notes of the cake. But the same principles apply across loads of different cake and cheese matches. Parkin and Wensleydale, Lancashire and Eccles cakes, walnut cake with Roquefort, Epoisses and plum bread are all really good matches.

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“The cake to cheese ratio is all important. You need a surprisingly large slice of cheese to balance out the sweetness of the cake. A 50/50 ratio is about right, although perhaps a bit less cheese with big boys like Epoisses and Roquefort.”

Yes, this is no modern fad, but a staple bound by heritage.

Emma Stokes, from Tadcaster in Yorkshire, says: “Until I moved down south I didn’t realise some people think it’s weird to have cheese with your Christmas cake.

“For us, it’s always Wensleydale. My family have a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales so always make a trip up before Christmas to pick some up from the creamery. They sell the cakes too, but usually mum’s been steeping hers with booze for months by that point.”

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Food writer Olivia Poots says she also enjoys Wensleydale with Christmas cake. “I’m from South Shields but I understand it to be a Yorkshire thing, which is where my family came from. To me, it just makes sense: choose a sharp cheese and it’ll cut through the boozy richness of the cake, and dried fruits and nuts are a natural pairing for cheese in any event.”

Jack Tinsdale, from Barnsley, says the tradition probably began due to the fact many Yorkshire cheeses tend to be made during lambing season, stored over the summer, and then sold during the autumn in time to mature for Christmas. “Mature cheeses reach their optimum level during the festive season.

“My mum seems to start making her Christmas cake as we finish the closing bars of Auld Lang Syne. The cheese does need to be good quality – you wouldn’t have cheap wine with an expensive meal.

“Anything that has had a bottle of brandy soaked into it over the past 12 months deserves something a bit better than a slab of basic cheddar.

“An accompanying cup of tea is – of course – non-negotiable.”