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Gouda might not be the first thing that comes to mind when booking a trip to the Netherlands, but as a true cheese connoisseur, it’s an opportune time to explore green pastures and get lost in the countryside and taste exceptional cheese.
Anna Juhl, owner of Cheese Journeys, spent the past three years journeying through the Netherlands to perfect a 9-day cheese expedition, with the intent to demystify Gouda—a now generic name for a wide range of cheese as it didn’t receive a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in time before it became a brightly colored, processed marketing tactic to lure in tourists at famed markets and beyond. “This has caused confusion and misunderstanding of their heritage, which should be tied to high-quality, consistent Gouda cheese,” says Juhl.
The Dutch are privy in keeping their namesake cheese sacred, at the very least, differentiating it from what pre-exists. As Juhl notes, there’s a handful of notable cheesemakers working diligently to resurrect the world of Dutch cheese: Betty Koster of Fromagerie L’Amuse (a highly-acclaimed cheese shop with two locations in the Netherlands), Jan Dirk of Remeker, Roos and Jan van Schie of Wilde Weide, and Beemster.
The beginning of this expedition brought rainbow-hued, powdery cheeses to my attention at Amsterdam’s Lindengracht—a nostalgic nod to holiday season as a child, where family members exchanged gift boxes of smoked gouda and summer sausage. However, this is not the real Gouda. It never was. To find authentic Dutch-style cheeses, one must not ask for it by this name. “It dumbs down a cheese by calling it Gouda,” says Koster.
Referred to as the “Julia Child of cheese,” Koster is responsible for putting stellar cheesemakers on the map worldwide. “She is a pioneer in the world of Gouda,” adds Juhl. “Her grandmother owned one of the first cheese shops in the Netherlands and whey runs through her veins,” and is often noticed for taking risks in aging cheeses and producing some of the most impeccable wheels in Holland. Each year, Koster ages several wheels of her Brabander goat Gouda approximately six months longer to produce coveted Black Betty. “Only the top sellers of Brabander can get their hands on the cheese, which has a cult following now,” says Juhl.
Juhl’s trek through the Netherlands begins with checking into Fort Resort Beemster, a luxurious renovated fortress, just half an hour’s drive north of Amsterdam. The spa will cure all signs of jet lag while Poterne restaurant will set the tone with a beautiful meal, ending with a Beemster cheese plate alongside a glass of sparkling wine.
“When you start to understand the story of Gouda, you must build incrementally or it’s confusing,” Juhl notes, of the intentionally planned route, starting with a tour of Alkmaar, a historic cheese market that has been practicing local cheese trading for over 500 years.
A cheese tasting at Beemster’s farmer-owned cooperative and new state of the art aging warehouse is where the story of Gouda really begins. ‘While Beemster is making Gouda from milk sourced from many local farmers, its scale does not negate the fact that consistent, high-quality cheese is yielded each day from cows grazing on the fertile fields of the Beemster polder.” Juhl’s route gradually goes from this larger co-op to husband-wife operated farms, but one thing remains the same: the cheese is outstanding at every spot.
Jan and Roos van Schie, plus a herd of Montbeliarde and Red Friesian cows, make up the tiny, below-sea-level lake island of Zwanburgerpolde. Sans email or a website, it would be impossible to discover their farm, where Wilde Weide, one of the world’s best cheeses, is produced. Just seven 25-pound wheels are produced by hand each day. Prior to Koster putting Wilde Weide on the map, Jan sold his cheese to a wholesaler, who thought it was just an ordinary cheese.
Lunch with the Schies consists of fresh cow milk (to drink on its own, which I so proudly did, or to pour in freshly brewed coffee), an artisan bread basket, and several aged cheeses. Wild meadow, the cheese’s English translation, is the best descriptive for its taste. Grassy meadows, flowers and hints of caramel come to mind when indulging.
An “aha moment” for Juhl was seeing spices in Dutch cheeses. At first glimpse, slight hesitation due to the sheer fact of producers dumping spices and ingredients into low-quality cheeses to fool the customer, but inclusion of spices with proper cheesemakers is a nod to the spice trade. A slice of Wilde Weide’s cheese with Fenugreek seeds, on top of fruit bread, is a taste that’s hard to forget.
In the Eastern Dutch province of Gelderland, Jan Dirk heads up Remeker. It would be hard-pressed to find a cheesemaker more in tune with the land and cows, and it shows, after walking around the picturesque farm, better known as the land of happy, horned Jersey cows. “He carefully tends to each wheel, even washing the cheese with his very own ghee, allowing for a natural rind—one that breathes and matures along with the cheese—and responds to the surroundings,” adds Juhl. “That’s also why you can eat the rind that provides additional, unexpected taste sensations.”
Hours later I find myself foraging local flora in the polder with Naomi Nieuwenhuis, owner of Country Home Cooking, a bed and breakfast with an attached cooking school in De Rijp. The greens are for a pesto, made with crystalized Beemster cheese (in lieu of Parmesan), sunflower seeds, smoked garlic, and sunflower oil. Nieuwenhuis is a longtime fan of Beemster and includes it consistently in recipes at her cooking school, telling the story of its standout caramelized, nutty flavor one dish at a time. Overnight guests often walk away with a new understanding of what Dutch cheese truly is.
En route to Zandvoort, a detour to check out Koster’s newest L’Amuse cheese bar in IJmuiden, consisted of a sizeable seafood spread and tiered servers with a variety of young cheeses. Stateside, cheese slices are associated with processed junk but in Holland the Dutch eat a lot of cheese for breakfast—sliced, unaged cheese to top off bread, with other accoutrements. “This explains why the most sold cheese tool by Boska, a famous Dutch Cheeseware maker, is the cheese slicer,” adds Juhl. Everyone owns at least one cheese slicer in these parts. During the trip, Boska hosts a cheese-centric meeting in their studio to show off a wide range of cheese tools and how to execute a stylish cheese gathering or cheese board back home.
My journey ended at Ajuma in Zandvoort, where Koster hosted the most elegant cheese and tea pairing on the beach, stating that tea awakens the palate, inviting complex flavor into the mouth—unlike beer or wine, which tend to numb taste buds. Between the candied-colored sunset, salty air, and impeccable pairings, I finally begin to understand what Gouda is—a treasured skill that several Dutch cheesemakers have mastered; willing to share the knowledge with those who seek it out.
A few weeks upon return stateside, I stepped into Trio, a wine and cheese shop in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Sitting side by side in a glass cheese case were Beemster XO, Wilde Weide, Brabander, and L’Amuse’s two-year aged Gouda. I thought back to Juhl’s expedition and suddenly it all made sense. Gouda is Gouda and Dutch cheese is in a class of its own. If seeking true Dutch cheese, education and awareness of these small farmers is key. “Ask for the cow breed,” Koster notes. “It says it all.”