TUCKED into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains just west of Charlottesville is a little bit of Holland: Landsdale Farm, one of fewer than a dozen commercial farmstead dairies in the entire United States, where 46 Holsteins lazily graze and where their whole, raw, grade A milk is made into sunny gouda cheese.
Owner Owie Bloemers, 38, acquired her gouda-making expertise the authentic way. Fresh out of college, she had taken off for Europe and soon fallen in love with a young Dutchman. Within a year they had married and he had inherited his family reinsurance business (which he has since transformed into an international conglomerate).
It took Owie Bloemers 10 years to figure out that she wanted to go home to Virginia and live in the country again. The Bloemerses bought a picture-perfect 500-acre Albemarle County farm, and soon they were running two homes: he with his business back in Rotterdam, where she or the children occasionally travel; they at Landsdale Farm, where he visits as long and as often as possible. When she asked herself what should she do with her time and talents and 500 acres, the answer seemed obvious. She would make traditional Dutch gouda cheese.
Cheesemaking traditions in the Gouda region of the Netherlands, says Bloemers, still hark back to peasant days. You can still find country cheesemakers who winter their cows in a room attached to their own house. These farmstead dairies make the finest cheese available in the region, all by hand, without pasteurizing or separating the milk before they make it. Cheese dealers ride through the region on bicycles, picking up the week's cheeses from each farm along the road. Once she had determined to make her own gouda, Bloemers visited several such farmstead dairies and learned the secrets of the Dutch cheesemaking trade.
Health and agriculture regulations, availability of equipment and supplies, make Landsdale Farm's cheese operation more American than Dutch, however. But if you visit the farm on cheesemaking day, you'll think you have stepped back into the Old World. A large picture window reveals to the visitor in the lobby just how they make the cheese.
Two young women, Anne Scarpa and Gordon Myers, wearing colorful kerchiefs, waterproof aprons and knee-length rubber boots, lean over a stainless steel cheesemaking vat. Like a giant bathtub with hollow sides through which hot water flows, the vat holds 500 gallons of milk, enough to make 400 pounds of cheese in a day.
Rennet and culture are added to the milk by 8:30 in the morning; then the milk is heated and stirred. By 9:30 the milk solids begin to coagulate, floating like a giant white pudding in its own whey. Scarpa and Myers draw long blades through the pudding, leaving inch-cubed curds cooking in the warm whey until they feel squeaky--or at least that's Owie Bloemers' way of telling when the cooking is done.
Next, the curds are hooped into round plastic sieves, left to drain and finally pressed. The Dutch cheese press that the Bloemerses imported from Holland gleams in the near corner of the cheesemaking room, its wooden parts polished, its cast-iron parts painted bright red. Cheeses stay under pressure for at least two hours, until most of the moisture presses out.
Now the cheeses will hold their own shape. Bloemers floats them in a brine bath for up to two days, depending on their size. Then they receive a thin coating of a yellow sealer, which gives the cheese a different appearance from most goudas on the U.S. market. "No cheese in Holland is coated with that red wax except the ones made for export," says Bloemers. "No Dutch housewife has red-wax coated cheese in her kitchen. It doesn't allow a cheese to breathe."
Since Landsdale Farm cheese is made from unpasteurized milk, Virginia law required that it age for two months before going to market. "By that time, if anything's wrong with it, it will swell up and smell like holy moly," Virginia agriculture inspector Atwood Huff explains. Dutch cheesemakers don't have to work within such restrictions, says Bloemers, and one can enter a cheese shop and specify a cheese by age. A young cheese is soft and mild and creamy; the same cheese gets harder and sharper with age. Bloemers occasionally has an older cheese to sell, sometimes flavored with the seed of dill or cumin. But during the seasons when business is brisk, she moves her cheese out just as soon as it is two months old.
The business is only three years old, but Owie Bloemers has determination. In those three years she has doubled her herd and doubled her cheese production--and she still couldn't fill all the orders that came in before Christmas. She hired two cheesemakers and a resident farm manager, but she is determined to see to the marketing herself.
How does Landsdale Farm cheese taste? It's creamier, richer, less gummy, firmer in texture and lighter in color than the goudas we Americans are used to buying. As a matter of fact, says Jerry Cohen of Potomac Butter and Egg, which distributes the cheese in Washington, it might sell better if it weren't called gouda. "People are interested in it," says Cohen, "but gouda cheese is not the biggest seller in the world."
Bloemers recognizes the problem but doesn't want to lose the Dutch connection of the gouda name. "The problem in saying that it's gouda is that you've got all those other revolting ones on the market. You compete mentally and price-wise with them and you get into the question of whether an imported cheese is best, but I'm certainly not going to drop it all together. I want to hit more on the fact that it's made in Virginia."
In Washington the cheese costs $5.50 to $6 a pound. It's available at Suzanne's, Potomac Butter and Egg, Sutton Place Gourmet, American Cafe, Georgetown Wine and Cheese, Wagshal's and Giant's Someplace Special in McLean. But you can buy it for considerably less at the farm itself.
Landsdale Farm is open to visitors Monday through Friday, 9 to 4 and closed on weekends. Cheesemaking usually takes place Monday, Wednesday and Friday. To get there from Washington take Rte. 29 south to Barracks Road in Charlottesville and turn right. Go 10 miles and take another right on Rte. 671. Go three-quarters of a mile and just past the bridge, take left onto Rte. 674 (unpaved). Farm is three-quarters of a mile on the right. Call (804) 823-2348. THE UITSMIJTER (or "Bouncer") A Traditional Dutch Lunch
Slip a fried egg onto a piece of whole wheat toast or a toasted muffin. Quickly place on top three thin slices of cheese. Serve immediately. APPLE PIE A LA LANDSDALE
Just before serving a home-baked apple pie, grate cheese over it (approximately 1/2 cup), pop under broiler for 1 to 2 minutes, and serve while still hot. GOUDA PARTY PUFFS (Makes 6 dozen) 2 cups flour 1 tablespoon baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon salt 2/3 cup cold butter 2/3 cup grated cheese 1/2 cup buttermilk (as needed)
Thin squares of ham, for garnish
Blend together dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut butter in large chunks into flour, then work it and cheese briskly into flour with fingers, until dough shows pea-sized lumps. Moisten with just as much buttermilk as is needed to come to a workable consistency. Then pat dough out on floured board, fold in half and pat out again, 4 times over. Pat out to 1 inch thick. Cut dough into strips 1 1/2 inches long by 1/4- to 1/2-inch wide, then tip each sideways into greased baking sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes at 375 degrees. Top with thinly sliced squares of ham or other garnish. Best served piping hot out of the oven. THE BOEREN OMELET (Dutch Farmer's Omelet) (2 servings) 2 tablespoons butter 1 clove garlic 3 mushrooms 3 scallions Herbs to season 1/4 to 1/2 cup leftover cooked vegetables: peas, corn, carrots, green or lima beans, at room temperature 3 eggs Pinch salt 3 thin slices gouda cheese
Place 1 tablespoon butter in small skillet. As soon as it sizzles, toss in crushed garlic clove, chopped mushrooms and scallions, and sprinkle in herbs for seasoning as desired. Cook lightly until scallion is soft, then toss in leftover vegetables, stir briefly, and remove all from skillet. Melt the other tablespoon of butter in skillet. Whisk eggs with a pinch of salt and half an eggshell of water, then pour into sizzling butter. Fork omelet sides in toward center as they cook. When omelet is approaching desired consistency, spoon cooked vegetable mixture over it. Top with cheese slices, fold, and serve soon.