Essex St. Cheese Co.

June 29, 2011, 9:09 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized


A regular report on geek cheese interests and the learnings by traveling cheesemonger Daphne Zepos.

Dutch farmstead cheesemakers
Nylander, Wilde Weide, Remeker
First you start with the land

While you may think of Holland as a country that makes large, industrial, wax wrapped cheeses, there is another side to Dutch cheesemaking. Dutch farmstead cheeses are experiencing a new revival. They are made by dairy farmers who raise cows and make cheese on the same farm.

On a recent trip I met three Dutch farmstead cheesemakers.

  1. Otto Jan Bokma makes Nylander in north Holland, close to the enclosed Zuiderzee sea.
  2. Jan van Shie and his wife Roos make Wilde Weide. Their farmstead is a one square kilometer island; they are the sixth generation to farm the property.
  3. Jan Dirk van de Voort makes Remeker. The land has been in his family since the 1600s.

The first thing I noticed about these farmstead cheesemakers is that they are very serious about keeping their land alive and sustainable. Maybe it’s because of the length of time many of them have owned it. They farm organically. They leave hedgerows. Jan of Wilde Weide hays very late, in effect renouncing the revenue of the first hay harvest to let indigenous birds come eat from the grass and rear their baby chicks. If he sees their nests he plows around them.

I was on the farms at the end of May. All the pastures were in bloom with clover, lupine, chamomile, buttercups and tall reedy grasses. It was an extravagant salad bar for the cows.  A symphony of aromas. The term “grassy” could fill a whole aroma wheel on its own.

The second and most striking difference about Dutch farmstead cheesemakers was the answer they gave to the question, “How do you make cheese?”  Every other cheesemaker I’ve met starts at the dairy. The Dutch started with the land. In particular…

…Otto Jan of Nylander drove me down a dirt road to their fields to see his heifers, a handsome bunch of young Jersey cows. Slim water canals act as moats that keep the feisty girls on the right side of the road. Then we walked to the milkers’ field. Slowly, we got surrounded by a hundred cows, a relaxed, curious, pulsating mass. Wet nostrils took in our scent. Sandpapery, bluish tongues nibbled at our clothes and fingers. The cows heated the air around us. They smelled incredible, a mixture of clean hide and pollen. The power of that encounter completely influenced my visit to the dairy.

…Jan Dirk of Remeker took me out to a field with a shovel. He uncorked the earth, a foot deep. He talked about the soil and how worms rise from the earth to pluck treasure from the cow dung each night. The worms’ excrement, in turn, creates humus to grow great grass. Next thing I knew he stuck his index finger into a fresh cow turd and had it up to my nose. I took a step back as he approached but I was mesmerized. It was the most galvanizing cheesemaking demonstration I’ve ever seen. He said, “This is where it all begins. This is where we started when we wanted to improve the health of the cow and quality of the milk.”

I’ve been in this business for over twenty years. There have been few moments that have changed my perspective on cheesemaking the way that moment did. It made me realize that the dairy with its stainless steel vats and warm curds is but one step in the cheesemaking process. Maybe step eight out of ten. There are so many steps before the dairy—the breed of cow, the grass, the season, and apparently, worms and turds. It starts with the land. And after the dairy it continues with aging, which is never called cheesemaking, but really is. I might even include cheesemongering in there—after all, it’s still alive when we sell it, right?

Watch Jan Dirk uncorking the earth

Read “Of Windmills, Dikes and Cheese” in the current Cheese Connoisseur

– Daphne

Essex Street Cheese Co. offers Farmstead Goudas selected by Betty Koster at L’Amuse, Amsterdam’s best cheese shop. From time to time we also have an extremely limited selection of Wilde Weide.


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