Gouda: the rediscovery of traditional farmhouse cheeses

30 November 2020

The Netherlands may be one of the smallest countries in Europe, but it has consistently punched above its weight in cultural, economic and gastronomic terms. It’s difficult to believe, but it’s the world’s second largest exporter of agricultural products, after the USA.

As well as being home to the world’s most advanced systems of intensive agriculture, the Netherlands is also home to some of the most famous cheeses. But what remains of traditional producers in a country that, from the air, resembles a sea of greenhouses?

One of these three cheeses, Gouda, is present in the Showcase of Terra Madre. In this article we’ll speak about all three, to give a more complete picture of traditional cheesemaking in the country.


Cheese is placed in wooden barrels with linen cloths

We discuss the state of raw milk cheesemaking in the Netherlands with Martin Warmerdam, coordinator of the Traditional Boeren Leyden Presidium. “Historically, the butter was the most valued part of the cow’s milk, and cheese was made with the resulting skimmed milk. The Leyden cheese is considered a low fat cheese, with 30-40% fat in the dry matter, similar to Parmigiano Reggiano. But unlike Parmigiano, which was produced by cooperatives or monasteries, Dutch cheeses like Leyden were made on individual dairy farms from the milk of their own herd. Each producer’s cheeses differed according to the breed, the feeding regime, soil constitution, milking hygiene, and the skills of the farmers. This is still the case today with the Slow Food Presidium cheeses, and forms part of the legacy of farmhouse cheese in the Netherlands.”

The importance of hygiene doesn’t begin with Louis Pasteur

“Dutch dairy farmers had always known that hygiene was essential to keep their butter customers happy, most of whom were in France and Britain. This was especially true as of course the milk did not undergo any thermal treatment. So any bacterial contamination which could potentially spoil the product could not be cured, but only prevented. Thus fresh milk was processed on site at the individual farms. That’s the basis of Dutch farmhouse cheese traditions. And in the beginning, all cheeses were low fat cheeses, by necessity, because of the demand for butter.”

Leyden: the cheese of the Age of Discovery

“Leyden is a great early example of international trade and its impact on European food. The defining characteristics of the cheese are the added cumin seeds (obtained via trade with North Africa from the 15th century onward) and the use of red dye on the surface (Anatto sourced from Peruvian plants from the late 16th century). It’s hard, dry composition made it ideal for the sailing ships exploring the world’s oceans, as a Gouda wheel would simply have melted on a ship crossing the equator without refrigeration. Indeed, the rise of Gouda coincided with the rise of refrigeration.”

“There has been a consortium which unites Leyden cheese producers for over 90 years, which today counts seven active, cheese-producing members. Of these, five are also members of the Slow Food Presidium, and only two of these make Leyden exclusively. The purpose of the Presidium is to promote traditional cheese with the characteristics it had in the early 20th century, to create a distinction with the modern industrial imitations with their higher fat contents, higher moisture contents and higher pH levels. Many people have a negative experience with these copycat products. It’s important that they know that what they ate isn’t really Leyden, and that an authentic version still exists.”

Gouda: not a place of origin, but a place of exchange

Gouda and its producers: the Captein family.

Gouda is unusual among cheeses in that it isn’t named after the place where it was traditionally made, but after the market town where it was traded. To this day, producers and buyers gather on Thursday mornings in summer in the town of Gouda to weigh, taste and price their cheeses.

“In the Netherlands there are over 600,000 tons made per year, but only 10,000 tons are made on farms. Of these farmers, half are pasteurizing their milk, so we have only 5000 tons a year of traditional Gouda being made by around 75 farmers. And of these 75, only two make Aged Artisanal Gouda following the Slow Food-approved recipe. As with the Leyden cheese Presidium, only summer milk from grazing cows may be used to make it. The Presidium protocol specifies that the cheese must be purposefully made in such a way that it ripens slower and longer, leading to an amazing balance in taste and flavor profile. This ripening may be prolonged as long as three or more years, during which time the cheese only improves in quality. During ripening, all kinds of precursors are created in the cheese from macro-molecules (proteins and fat) that are subsequently broken down into a large array of flavor compounds. It’s a real treat.”

Edam: critically endangered yet world famous

Like Leyden, Edam’s easy portability and aging potential made it extremely popular around the world for hundreds of years. Nowadays, however, its signature red paraffin wax casing is perhaps better known from the marketing of Babybel, an industrial imitation designed for school lunch-boxes.

“As for the traditional farmhouse Edam, once such a common food around the Dutch Empire and aboard its sailing fleet, there remains just one farmer-producer left who makes it with his own herd’s milk. With Slow Food we are investigating a strategy for this cheese, which may eventually include a Presidium, in order to stimulate sales and consumption, to encourage other producers to take up the mantle, and to ensure its survival.”

Immaterial Cultural Heritage

“A first step has already been taken: traditional farmhouse raw milk cheeses like Gouda, Leyden and Edam were added to the Netherlands national inventory of intangible cultural heritage in September 2017, and UNESCO is considering them for inclusion on their register of cultural specialties.”

by Jack Coulton, info.eventi@slowfood.it

Discover the Virtual Showcase of Terra Madre Salone del Gusto and the Slow Food Presidium for Aged Artisan Gouda. In the Virtual Showcase you can find a complete presentation of the producers, and get to know them almost as well as you would in person. There’s a selection of products also available for sale (in the Schengen Area of the European Union) at our marketplace, too!