I was at a bustling food fair in Italy when a cheese stopped me in my tracks. All other enticements—white truffles, rare molluscs, champagne—blurred into the background. Gouda would never be the same again.
That’s right, the stuff we know as “goo-duh”—mild, adaptable and as inexpensive as it is unremarkable—is having its potential pushed to extremes through aging processes: 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.
Afrim Pristine of Cheese Boutique in Toronto started importing, and then aging, a farmstead Gouda (meaning the milk is sourced from the family farm) from the family-owned Lindenhoff label after trying it with his dad at an international show. “We 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. “In my opinion, this is one of the top five cheeses on the planet.”
Customers seem to agree. “Someone comes in and says, ‘I love a good, aged cheddar,’ ” says Pristine. “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.
All of this excitement is for what Ontario-based Monforte Dairy’s Ruth Klahsen rightly says began life as “a workingman’s cheese, often taken with jam and a practical way to get protein and thereby get through a hard day’s work.” Klahsen, who makes a Gouda with goat’s milk she describes as “mild and good for kids,” has tasted the top-grade from Holland and admits, “it can be rustic and beautiful.”
Gouda, like cheddar, is a cheese without a designation or territorial protection. It was originally named for the Dutch town of Gouda, famous since the 17th century for its wealthy cheese market. In Holland, 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 Boeren-Goudse Oplegkaas. (That’s what I tasted in Italy.) It is aged artisan Gouda, something close to what Pristine is experimenting with in his cellar.
The international agency Slow Food recognizes the artisan stuff as an endangered product. They report 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.”
Advocates for the “real Gouda” say it invites alchemy, something not all cheeses can handle. It entices even the most conservative cheesemakers to fiddle around with its chemistry. Walter Schep, of Thunder Bay, Ont., is a fourth-generation Gouda cheesemaker. His family immigrated from Holland in the 1980s and founded Thunder Oak Cheese Farm. The product has what Pristine calls “a cult following.” It’s a farmstead cheese—and practises the Dutch tradition of both using milk from grass-fed, or pastured, cows and ripening cheeses to one year or younger with the occasional two-year vintage. With a small output, they sell out each year and what little is left is bought up by top Toronto restaurants.
Schep prefers his Gouda the customary Dutch way—young, sliced thinly on bread and eaten as a snack—but 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.”
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.”