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Chasing cheese in the Dutch countryside

Made in the Netherlands with the milk of Dutch cows, farmer-made Gouda carries the taste of the land

A recreation of the cheese market of old in the town of Gouda. Photo: Rupali Mehra
A recreation of the cheese market of old in the town of Gouda. Photo: Rupali Mehra

When a sexagenarian, during conversation, slices cheese to the exact gram without so much as even looking at the weighing scale, you know you have come to the right place.

The bus from Gouda to Schoonhoven had dropped me off on the highway, somewhere between the two towns in the Netherlands’ South Holland province. The landmark I was told to look out for was Den Arend, or The Eagle, an unmissable 150-year-old windmill that stands 68ft tall. Across the highway from it, a pretty little road leads to Bergambacht village, home to the De Jong family, whose cheese graces the tables of connoisseurs around the world.

My love for all things artisanal, including cheese, had taken me to Gouda. In medieval times, Gouda was the only town in the Netherlands (then known as the County of Holland) where cheese could be traded. Thousands of Dutch cheese farmers would gather at Gouda’s market square to barter their wares. In the years since, the daily outdoor market has made way for quaint cheese shops and pretty outdoor cafés. The De Goudse Waag building in the marketplace, where cheese was weighed on massive scales, has been converted into a cheese and crafts museum. Nowadays a cheese market is held every Thursday from spring to autumn to give tourists a picture of how things worked back in the day.

What has not changed is the Dutch love for cheese. On an average, a Dutch citizen consumes anywhere between 14-15kg of cheese per year. To me, these statistics belie the oft-heard statement that cheese is fattening. It doesn’t show on the Dutch at least.

With their unquestioning love for cheese, what has also survived is the tradition of family-run cheesemaking businesses. About 300 families still make the traditional Boerenkaas farmer’s cheese that now has Protected Geographical Indication status. The De Jong family is one of them. So I decided to visit them and learn more about the craft of cheesemaking.

Bergambacht instantly felt special. Dotted with quaint brick houses and colourful flower beds that fence homes from the adjoining canal, the village looks straight out of a fairy-tale storybook. Swans glide past and, at a distance, you can see cows, lots of them, grazing in the meadows of the cheese valley. It is these bovine creatures that make Gouda and its cheese so special. That, and the people who make it.

The village of Bergambacht. Photo: Rupali Mehra

“Our cheese has 40% fat because our cows give such good-quality milk," says Klazina, leading me to the cheesemaking area at the De Jong family farm, Jongenhoeve. The farm’s 500 cows are all Holstein-Friesians, a breed that originated in the Netherlands and is globally known as the highest milk-producing cattle.

Inside the unit, Klazina’s husband Leendert, busy at work, barely notices us. From a large vat, he and two assistants are sifting cheese curds from whey and packing them tightly into 16-litre tubs. They will allow the compressed cheese to settle for 5 hours before turning each one over by hand. By the end of the day they would have made cheese out of the 14,000 litres of milk. “The boss is at work at 5.30am and goes back home at 8pm," says one of his employees. I am not surprised.

The De Jong family makes 1,400kg of Gouda cheese daily. That is 511,000kg of cheese a year. All of it is artisanal.

Among the many varieties of Gouda cheese, Boerenkaas holds a special place. It is made with unpasteurized milk and then coated with a creamy plastic substance before it is left to mature. Each block is labelled with a unique number. “My husband has a record of every single cheese block that is produced by us," says Klazina. The register has been in the family for generations, and despite technology and automated coding, the handwritten register is still maintained.

So how many blocks of cheese has her family made? “Perhaps millions. Millions and millions," says Klazina as we walk into the cool room where thousands of cheese blocks are at various stages of maturing. “Some like their cheese jong," she says of young cheese that has been matured for less than six months. “It depends on individual preferences. Many also like ook hebben." This is cheese matured for more than two years. Klazina says jokingly that old cheese reminds her of rubber shoe soles. But there are patrons who wouldn’t have it any other way—much like old wine.

Jongenhoeve has been with the De Jong family for more than a century. In 1916, Leendert Boer bought this farm for his son and daughter-in-law. The business has continued over five generations. Today, Leendert, who is named after his ancestor, personally looks into each and every pound of cheese produced. Their son is in charge of the cattle, and Klazina and her daughter-in-law take care of the cheese shop.

At the shop, Klazina patiently shows me the various varieties of cheese made on the farm. For me, the tastiest is the traditional pittig belegen, or mature Gouda that has been aged for 10 months. In the 1970s, the cheesemakers began experimenting with flavours, adding herbs and spices to the cheese curds before they were set to dry. Cumin cheese was one of the first. The experiment with combinations continues, from mild ones like fenugreek Gouda to stronger flavours like paprika and pepper. The most exquisite variety in the market is the truffle Boerenkaas, made from black truffles.

Cheesemaking looks like a tough business, but Klazina doesn’t agree. “You can make cheese at your home," she says, deftly slicing a quarter from a big block of cheese. “It is such a good way to store extra milk." I smile and politely nod in agreement. But let’s leave it to the experts for now.

Holstein-Friesian cows at the De Jong family cheese farm. Photo: Rupali Mehra

How well do you know your Gouda?

Some original Gouda (pronounced ‘khowda’ in the Netherlands) cheese varieties

■ Jong, young cheese that is soft and creamy and takes about two months to mature.

■ Jong belegen, which is more mature and has a fuller taste but is still soft.

■ Belegen is a six-month-old mature but mild cheese.

■ Pittig belegen, a 10-month-old cheese with a sharp taste.

■ Oude kaas, aged 10-18 months, is a sharp and spicy cheese with a full flavour.

■ Ook hebben is the oldest, a hard cheese with a sharp taste.

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