Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017

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Gouda times

Believe it or not, that unassuming Dutch cheese has reached cult status

What’s in a name? When it comes to what is commonly known as the pliable, bland cheese called Gouda, it seems everything. Pronounced “how-dah” in Dutch and “goo-duh” in English, it is in fact not a single entity but a category of cheeses that range from the pedestrian to the sublime.

And that's no exaggeration: while at a bustling food fair in Italy, eager to sample from the hundreds of truly exceptional goods that surrounded me, a taste of aged farmstead Gouda stopped me in my tracks. All other enticements — white truffles, rare mollusks, Champagne — blurred into the background.

In the words of cheese expert Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique (tel: 416-762-6292; cheeseboutique.com) in Toronto, Gouda can be “one of the top five cheeses on the planet.” Known for his cheese-ageing cave, where he stocks hundreds of cheeses from Canada and around the world, Pristine started importing and then ageing a farmstead Gouda from the family-owned Lindenhoff label after trying it with his father at an international show. “The Lindenhoff family was there, we walked up, had a taste,” he says. “And then we freaked out!” He set out to see if he could buy up all of their supply. His cellar today is stocked with hundreds of the 11-kilo wheels.

Pristine likes to age Gouda which requires careful control of humidity and temperature and usually includes turning wheels by hand on a rotation. “The evolution of this particular cheese is amazing,” he declares. Why? “I don’t know. Maybe it’s in the biology of the cheese and how it’s made, what the cows are eating, how much salt is used. You can list all these things, but the truth is no one really knows.”

Mystery aside, he is on to something. Gouda is challenging cheese-makers and affineurs alike to push its potential to extremes through ageing processes, where the rewards can turn out an ultimate taste experience that packs a punch of caramel, coffee and salt. Or, if taken too far or mishandled, a wax-like inedible waste.

Old World techniques

Gouda, like cheddar, is without a designation or territorial protection. So it can mean just about anything made just about anywhere — as long as it contains milk, or milk-like substances (modified milk ingredients, a cheap substitute for whole milk) and salt.

It was originally named for the Dutch town of Gouda, famous since the 17th century for its wealthy cheese market. There, it’s made with mixed results by both industrial-scale and artisan producers. Then there’s the rich, butterscotch-coloured farmstead Gouda, produced only in summer months with raw milk in the Green Heart Region, between the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, and called Boerenkaas — that’s what I tasted in Italy. There's also Boeren-Goudse Oplegkaas, an aged artisan Gouda, something close to what Pristine is experimenting with in his cellar.

Slow Food recognizes the artisan stuff as an endangered product. The international agency reports that while there are about 250 cheesemakers in the Netherlands producing the raw-milk farmstead cheese, the numbers are declining “due to the expansion of urban areas, increased production costs, hygiene restrictions and the abundance of cheap pasteurized imitations.” Slow Food is critical of the mass-produced versions, citing in its report that “Gouda is too often a banal cheese, its familiar thickly wax-coated forms available on supermarket shelves around the world.”

Advocates for the “real Gouda” say it invites alchemy, something not all cheeses are built to handle. Doubtless, it entices even the most conservative cheesemakers to fiddle around with its chemistry.

Pristine recounts a typical scenario at the shop: “Someone comes in and says, ‘I love a good, aged cheddar.’ We give them a taste of the Lindenhoff and it’s like they’ve never had cheese before. They just attack it.” At about $60 per kilo, the price is about the same as a top-grade Parmigiano Reggiano, known as the King of Cheeses.

Ontario artisans

All of this excitement is for what Ruth Klahsen of Monforte Dairy (tel: 877-437-5553; monfortedairy.com) says began life as “a working-man’s cheese, a cheese often taken with jam. A practical way to get protein and thereby get through a hard day’s work.” The award-winning Stratford, Ontario cheesemarker makes a Gouda with goat’s milk that she describes as “mild and good for kids.” She has tasted the top-grade from Holland and admits, “it can be rustic and beautiful.”

Walter Schep, based in Thunder Bay, is a fourth-generation Gouda-cheesemaker. His family immigrated from Holland in the 1980s and founded Thunder Oak Cheese Farm (tel: 866-273-3329; cheesefarm.ca). The product has what Pristine calls “a cult following.” It’s a farmstead cheese — meaning the milk is sourced from the family farm — and made in the Dutch traditions of using milk from grass-fed, or pastured, cows and ripening cheeses to one year or younger with the occasional two-year vintage. It has proven a recipe for success: with a small output, they sell out each year and what little is left is bought up by top Toronto restaurants like the Oliver Bonacini chain.

Yet while Schep prefers his Gouda in the customary Dutch way — young and sliced thinly on bread and eaten as a snack — he can’t resist attempts to age the cheese. “It becomes a totally different thing. It has a whole different flavour, even a different structure.” He once aged a wheel of Gouda for eight years. The results were “waxy, too hard and just not good. Some liked it. I didn’t.”

Pristine buys Thunder Oak — when he can get it — and ages it up to three years or more. He says it’s best eaten with a crisp, green apple: the match balances the richness of the cheese with acidity in the fruit.

The Lindenhoff, he concludes, is at its best at just under six years, even though Dutch tradition caps all artisan Goudas at four years, max. “It pairs with a good scotch or a cognac — a match made in heaven.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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