Surprisingly after sleeping all night our first night on board the Longship Eir of the Viking River Cruises European fleet, I felt fairly refreshed and eager to begin my first day of our Rhine Getaway cruise on the historical Rhine river. I say this because the first night on the ship I somehow convinced my wife Kim to take the optional tour involving cheese making. My wife strangely enough, doesn’t eat cheese unless it’s melted or included in a prepared dish. We ate breakfast early and assembled at the meeting place, eager to taste authentic Netherlands cheese, or at least I was very enthusiastic. I have to thank Kim for being a good trooper and accompanying me on this tour.
On the way to the farm we learned that several farms in the area had dairy operations, but only a few had cheese making capabilities. The farm we were headed to had started several years ago making cheese when the farmer’s wife decided to expand her cheese making capabilities and offer it to the public, never knowing how successful it would become. The farmer announced at the cattle barn his portion of the overall operation was limited in profitability and the majority of the family’s income came from his wife’s cheese making enterprise.
The farms are equal in layout and are approximately 40 acres in total, some with multiples of the 40 acre plots. The Netherlands, also called Holland in this and nearby areas of the Netherlands have specific laws applicable to the fair and humane treatment of farm animals. Each cow is mandated an acre for free range grass feeding when the weather allows and all dairy farmers are required to give their cows 120 days a year of at least six hours grazing in the meadows per day. This insures appropriate feeding to satisfy Dutch requirements.
We were taken on a tour of the cheese making operation that is entirely dedicated to the production of fresh Gouda cheese. The farmer’s oldest daughter led the excursion and was quite knowledgeable. She explained that her Mother actually began making Gouda cheese in her kitchen and it became popular with the neighbors and soon grew into a fairly good sized business.
The above photo represents the first step in the cheese making process. The large mixer stirs the combination warm milk and rennet which is the lining from the cow’s fourth stomach. This merger forms cultures that begin the cheese. This vat held 300 gallons I believe or the metric equivalent. Whey is the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained. About a third of this liquid is poured off, although some people retain it for use as a nutritional supplement in bodybuilding and it is the primary ingredient in most protein powders.
A little trivia for those interested, Gouda is the name of a Dutch town where Gouda cheese was developed in the thirteenth century.
After the cheese is formed by pressing it together in a mold lined with cheesecloth, it’s pressed into its final wheel shape and the first stages of the cheese are finished. It is then soaked in a brine solution of salt and water. After this process it is dipped over and over into this vat of wax that seals the completed product and forms the covering you are familiar with when purchasing your Gouda cheese at the local grocery store. This is the farmer’s daughter who will take over the cheese making operation at this farm when her Mother retires. Very astute young lady and undeniably works very long hours every day!
We learned that all Low Fat Gouda cheese blocks have a square edge. This identifies it as a product with less calories. I was surprised that a market existed for this product as I am a full flavored cheese lover and I thought most people were of that tradition. The young lady below puts the finishing touches on her Low Fat wheels in preparation for sales.
I was also very amazed at how many flavors of Gouda cheese existed and how they were significantly different in taste. The photo below reflects many of the various flavors. The black wheels are truffle flavored and obviously more expensive. I have to say my black truffle sample was delicious. The red wheels are paprika flavored Gouda and I loved its taste also. The green wheel represented pesto. The speckled wheel were flavored with chopped walnuts. Don’t tell anyone, but I had seconds on several of the samples. I wound up purchasing the original flavored Gouda, but came very close to buying the Cayenne flavor, as I like spicy foods.
After tasting multiple samples and buying my original flavored wheel (small, maybe a pound) we were led into the dairy barn where the dairy farmer explained the operation of managing the dairy cattle. This was dear to my heart, as my grandfather was a dairy farmer in Kansas for over 40 years. As a young man we visited his dairy farm every year, usually at Thanksgiving and I cherished those times after I grew up. Being back in that operation, even though it was in Holland, made the memories flood through my brain. My brothers and I loved exploring his barns and learning about dairy cattle. My only issue was my grandparents didn’t have indoor plumbing until I was fifteen years old. I won’t go into all the associated issues with this.
The barn was divided into two sections with milk producing cows on one side and cows who were pregnant or ready for insemination on the other side with the one bull he owned. As illustrated below the cows are very friendly and very curious. They want to reach out and let you know they are there. You have to be careful though as the cow’s tongues are rough and almost like sandpaper. They can really do damage if you aren’t careful and one can wind up with very bad scratches and abrasions.
Contrary to the feedlots in the US, this Holland operation had very widely spaced holding areas for the cows and the cows weren’t in any discomfort as in some of the American feedlots. They are all 100% Holstein cattle and the milking cows were milked twice daily via a robotic machine. I was used to actual hand milking as a young man and couldn’t believe how advanced the milking operation is today. We weren’t able to see the milking operation, as it begins at 5:00 AM daily and the second milking is at approximately 7:00 PM nightly.
They are fed hay daily and none of them looked malnourished by any means. In fact they might have been heavy by what I am used to at my Grandfather’s farm. The farmer had fed them earlier in the day and a few small stacks of hay remained.
The cows are very curious as I said above and I have to tell you about what happened to Kim. She was wearing a wrap that day as there was a chill in the air and she got too close to one of the cows. I didn’t get a good photo of what transpired, but you can guess from the ripples in her wrap. Yes the cow started eating her wrap and was pulling Kim towards the holding pen. It was hilarious and everyone got a great laugh from the cow’s action. I really wished I had a video of the event, as everyone laughed very heartily and I laughed so hard it almost brought tears to my eyes. It was hysterical.
Overall I would definitely recommend the “Cheese Making Tour” which is an optional tour and not included in the original package. It was a very nice experience to see how Gouda cheese is made and best of all, the ability to sample all those flavors was fantastic. We then headed over to the Kinderdijk windmills and joined the rest of the ship’s passengers that opted for the UNESCO windmill tour.
***Portions of our cruise were sponsored by Viking River Cruises. All opinions, as always, are those of my own.