“The Dutch countryside is just really, really suitable for making cheese. These cows walk on fertile grasslands and breathe in this silty sea air, and these ideal conditions you can find back in the flavor of the milk and cheese, “ says Wiebe Willig, director of one of Holland’s fastest growing cheese companies, Henri Willig.
Dutch cheese has always been famous, but Willig’s parents took cheese making to a whole new level when they started their little workshop in 1974 in Katswoude, a little village next to Amsterdam. The Dutch farmhouse is in a lovely place, next to a dike and the sea, with flat open fields everywhere. “There are cheese companies in Holland that are 200 times our size,” Willig says. “So my parents had to do something differently.” The couple decided to make smaller cheeses with many different flavors and sell these in their own shops. The handy one kilo portions were an immediate hit with tourists.
Now, 43 years later, the couple and their three sons have built up quite a company – with one big production plant and three farms, and shops in the center of Amsterdam, Edam and Gouda. Here visitors are invited to taste all the different flavors before buying. The Henri Willig cheeses are exported to other countries and available on the webshop as well, “but the best is to buy them in Holland. Here on the farm, the product goes straight from the land into the hands of the client,” Willig says.
The Willig family has by now developed up to a hundred different cheeses, using milk from cows, goats and sheep and adding all kinds of ingredients. “Any time I taste something somewhere, I wonder if it is possible to put it in cheese,” Willig laughs. This happened when he ate a sausage with lavender and wondered if he couldn’t put these flowers in goat cheese. Other unusual tastes include coconut, truffle and pesto cheese. Willig’s favorite is the old sheep cheese. “It’s got a complex taste, mild and strong at the same time.”
Cheese making is a bit like cooking, Willig says. “The process itself is quite simple, but our cheesemakers train for two years and then they have experience, so they know exactly how to mix the ingredients and when it is time for the next step. The production can take up to two years, so you need to make sure you get it right.”
From the beginning, the cheese farm received busses with foreign visitors who also wanted to see how the cheese was produced. At Katswoude, they are in for a treat. In the back of the building, in a brand new barn, Millig shows the ‘cow garden.’ About 100 Jersey cows, whose milk is especially suitable for organic cheese, relax in a big open space. Whenever they feel like it, the animals go to the side of the barn, where a fully automatic machine will milk them, give them some food and register which cow has given how many liters that day. Today’s stand is over 700 liters and the cows are trying to trick the machine into milking them twice, which it refuses to do.
In a few years’ time, this barn will be part of a ‘Cheese Experience”. Until then, there is a demonstration room and lots of cheese tasting afterwards. Just what you want to do on a farm in the middle of this green Dutch polder.