Dutch Cheese Masters
When salesman Michael Blum came in for his appointment, he had a story that was all too familiar. “My cheese is the best Gouda-style cheese made in Holland.” We are from Missouri, so when he said “And I’ll show you why,” Vicki and I started packing.
We arrived in the Netherlands on a beautiful spring day in late April. First up was a trip to the Cono cheese plant. Cono is a co-op of 550 family farms located in the canal-lined pastures of the most famous Dutch polder, Beemster. Cono produces premium gourmet Dutch cheeses available in the United States as the Beemster brand. After we settled in with our tea and cakes, Kees Paradies, Cono Export Manager, took us through the cheese-making steps and revealed why Beemster is better.
First, the terroir is unique. The Beemster land was reclaimed from the sea and drained by 55 windmills in 1612. It sits 20 feet below sea level and boasts blue sea clay. The climate and mineral-rich soil produce lush pesticide-free grasses that allow the cows to give milk that is pure and sweet with a soft fat.
Kees went on to explain that the curd and whey are separated gently in open drainage containers as it has been done for centuries. Due to the superior quality and richness of the milk, the cheese is produced with less salt than commonly found in other Gouda-style cheeses. Much of the flavor of cheese comes from the cheese cultures added to the milk in the early stages of cheese-making. Cono grows their own culture, retaining the integrity and uniqueness of the strain.
Finally, the recipe and focus on artisanal production remains true to its origins. The co-op was formed so the farmers’ wives would no longer have to make the cheese themselves on the farm and to this day, the farmers still have the final say on how the cheese is made.
Having heard the story, it was time to see things for ourselves. We proceeded on to the plant where we watched the curds and whey being hand raked, witnessed the wheels foating by in the brine and evaluated the internal maturation of the young wheels with our own cheese trier – a special tool to remove a core of cheese for tasting and testing. We walked the fields and visited a family farm (where 100 cows is considered a big operation).
We proceeded on to the village of Edam to a warehouse dating back to 1760, where cheese is matured in the traditional method on wooden boards under the watchful eye of a third-generation master. We saw the tulip fields. We toured the windmills that make Beemster polder possible. We participated in the historic Alkmaar Cheese Market, and stood on the weigh scales that have been in place since 1365.
Now that we are back home enjoying the cheese served to the Netherlands royal family, do we think Beemster is the best? One more bite, then we’ll let you know!