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Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers: Authentic Dutch Gouda in Wisconsin

Wheel of Marieke Gouda cut in half

In this blog series our intrepid intern Molly will find and interview American cheesemakers attempting to re-create traditional European cheeses. Learn about the difficulties as well as the benefits of this type of cheese making, as well as how terroir and the idea of a cheese tied to a location so distant changes when that cheese is made in a new location. Also, each week you’ll have a chance to win an issue of culture: the word on cheese. The winner of last week’s prize was Noel!


For the past several weeks, I’ve been writing about American cheesemakers who have been inspired by European traditions. Some have gone to Europe to learn about cheesemaking, while others have loosely adapted European recipes to their liking.

But what happens when a native European tries to make the cheese of her homeland in America? Like some of the immigrants who first brought cheeses to this country, Marieke Penterman of Holland’s Family Cheese did just that.

She and her husband Rolf were both raised on diary farms in the Netherlands. Their dream was to own a farm together, but because available land in their home country was scarce, they relocated to the U.S. They found some property in Thorp, Wisconsin, and two years after starting their dairying operation decided to venture into cheesemaking.

According to Lindsey Decker, Holland’s Family Cheese’s Marketing Director, Marieke wanted to make cheese because she longed for the Gouda of her homeland. “Most of the Goudas that exist in the United States are imports,” Lindsay says, “and if they’re not imports, they’re not crafted in an authentic Dutch fashion. She really wanted to make cheeses from home.”

Gouda for sale at a Dutch market

Dutch Gouda for sale.
Photocredit: Manuel MC

The classic Dutch cow’s milk cheese, with it’s characteristic sweetness, caramel tones, and tiny crystals, has been produced since at least 1184—that means it’s one of the oldest recorded cheeses still being made in the world today. The characteristic step in Gouda-making is ‘delactosing’, or washing the curd. Hot water is added to curds while they’re in the vat, a practice that removes some of the lactic acid, ultimately creating a sweeter cheese. The curd is pressed under warm whey and then into circular moulds. Wheels are aged anywhere from 4 weeks to 18 months, during which time the caramel sweetness and slight crunchiness from salt-like calcium lactate crystals develops.

Dutch windmill on left, whey being skimmed with dipper on right

The Dutch countryside; whey being removed before delactosing a batch of Dutch Gouda.
Photocredit: Bogdan Migulski, Grongar

While American interpretations of cheeses in “Gouda style” abound, according to Kirstin Jackson of It’s Not You, It’s Brie, prior to Marieke Gouda, “finding a walnut-hued American Gouda with tiny crystals that crunch like hard candy was as difficult as hunting down Fruit of the Loom briefs in Nieman Marcus.” Most of the American-made cheeses labeled “Gouda” were only loosely-based on the original; sometimes they were called Gouda simply because they shared certain steps in the make process, like delactosing, or familiar taste qualities, such as mellowness and slight sweetness.

Like cheddar, ‘Gouda’ is a generic term, its name unprotected. Cheeses named ‘Gouda’ are made all over the world, and even in the Netherlands, most are produced industrially. But there’s still about 300 Dutch farmers making what’s known as “Boerenkaas”, or “farmer’s cheese”, a PDO-protected form of Gouda fabricated in the traditional manner: farmstead production using unpasteurized milk. PDO protection is a way for small Dutch producers to set their cheeses apart from the industrially-made Goudas and the international imitations that sometimes bear so little resemblance to their traditional forebears. And until Marieke Penterman began making her Marieke Gouda in 2007, there were no versions of authentic Boerenkaas Goudas being made in America.

Marieke actually completed her cheesemaking coursework in Wisconsin before returning to her homeland to figure out how real Boerenkaas was made.  She spent time working with three authentic Boerenkaas producers, closely observing their methods. She got access to traditional recipes and was able to combine them to highlight what she believed were the best qualities. And finally, she brought home pine boards for aging, Dutch Gouda culture starters, and all-Dutch equipment (including a cheesemaking vat).

While American cheesemakers often source recipes and pieces of equipment from abroad, I was struck by the fact that Marieke got everything—even down to the pine planks for aging the cheese—from the Netherlands. That’s a lot of stuff to transport—and we have pine planks in America, too. But according to Lindsay Decker, Marieke did this because she knew, as all cheesemakers do, that every small variable can have an affect on the outcome of the cheese. She knew that controlling for all these variables—making the production as Dutch as possible—would bring her cheese as close as possible to the Boerenkaas of her homeland. To this date, the only thing she uses that’s not from the Netherlands is her milk, which comes from the cows in her Wisconsin backyard.

Gouda aging on left, Marieke making Gouda on right

Marieke Gouda aging; Marieke making cheese
Photocredit: Holland’s Family Cheese

Marieke also knew that what made Boerenkaas so exceptional is its artisan, handmade tradition. Like Boerenkaas, Marieke’s Gouda is a farmstead raw milk cheese; the unpasteurized milk comes directly from the cows on the farm. It’s so direct, in fact, that as soon as the milk exits the cows’ udders it’s piped right into her processing vat, without resting even a moment in an intermediary tank. The milk is made into cheese within five hours of exiting the cow. It’s then aged carefully, hand-washed and hand-flipped.

So how does Mareike Gouda compare to its Dutch counterparts? According to Kirstin Jackson, it could be mistaken for Dutch versions in a blind tasting. Both Americans and foreigners love it; it’s won more than 65 national and international awards since its release in 2007.

It’s a balanced cheese, with sweet caramel and butterscotch flavors meeting salty, beefy flavors, with notes of hay and roasted nuts. And when it ages long enough, it develops those small amino acid crystals that give it a slight crunch. Lindsey Decker believes that what really sets the taste apart is Marieke’s use of raw milk, which lends a different flavor profile. “Raw milk cheeses tend to have a more nuanced flavor profile,” she says, “they have more depth of flavor, so you’re going to notice a different sensation. And I don’t think anyone else domestically is putting out a raw-milk Gouda.” 

The combination of raw milk, farmstead production and adherence to traditional cheesemaking methods has enabled Marieke to recreate the cheese that she’s always loved. It’s at once an homage to the Old World and to the New; while unmistakably tied to the traditions of the Netherlands, it fits in perfectly with the American appreciation for a sweet, caramely flavor profile while proudly showcasing our beloved Wisconsin terroir.

Next week is the final post in my series: Distant Cheeses, Local Farmers. I’ll be discussing my own experience making Raclette here and abroad.

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