Over 600 million tons of cheese are produced in The Netherlands each year, so there is no lack of cheese stores in Amsterdam. If you are determined (or particularly brazen), it is entirely possible for you to flit from one store to the next and feast on all manner of cheese samples without paying a cent. What we were looking for however, weren't cheap kicks so much as a guided introduction to appreciating Dutch cheeses. D enjoys his cheeses at a superficial level, while I never quite liked cheese until I started studying in London, and I'm still exploring what suits my palate and what doesn't. We found out about the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting inside the Holland Pass guidebook, and it sounded perfect for what we wanted to do.
Two-thirds of Dutch cheese are exported each year, making The Netherlands one of the world's largest cheese exporters. I've enjoyed a few good Dutch Goudas in London, but as a food lover, there's nothing quite like tasting something at its source, or at the very least, in its country of origin. Getting a better understanding of the unique conditions that work to produce outstanding foodstuffs and of the cultures around it, always adds an extra special dimension to whatever I'm eating. Maybe it's the sense of romance that seems to permeate these stories, where nature is often allowed to freely run its course, or maybe it's the fact that it forces me to be more aware about whatever I'm trying, but everything just tastes better.
Finding the Reypenaer Cheese Tasting Room was easy enough from Amsterdam Centraal. I expected to be immediately taken by the heaving cheese displays in the small store, but what caught my eye instead was their Cheese Guillotine. It was an ingenious little contraption that you can use at home to slice your cheese even into wafer-thin slivers. It also looked and worked remarkably like a device I helped come up with during a group project about a decade ago. Of course, it was much, much classier than the prototype we'd come up with, which involved nailing a kitchen knife to a plastic lever that had been attached to a chopping block. I couldn't quite decide which would have made the worse scenario - our invention having come first without us filing for a copyright patent, or having unknowingly infringed on someone else's invention. We were earlier than everyone else who'd signed up for our workshop, so I had a fair amount of time to woefully contemplate the cheese guillotines that had been set out so customers could cut themselves fresh cheese samples.
Reypenaer specialize in Gouda cheeses, semi-hard to hard cheeses that are pressed into circular molds that give them their characteristic shape. There was a large variety of Gouda cheeses on offer, so we set about trying everything in advance of the class. It wasn't much of a hardship swotting up for this particular lesson. By the time we were called to the tasting room to begin the hour-long cheese and wine session, I'd already identified a few favourites, including the Reypenaer V.S.O.P. The name initially gave me pause - were they rubbing the cheeses down with brandy? - but it turned out V.S.O.P. in this case stood for 'Very Special Old Product'. A cute name, reflecting the fact that the cheese had been aged for two years.
Our tasting room was down in the bowels of the building, where we were seated two by two down the columns of desks. The tasting session began with a video on the history of the family-owned and run company and a look at their artisanal cheese-making process. Reypenaer is owned by the Wyngaard family, whose name translates to 'vineyard'. They named their cheese making after the Dutch word for 'maturing', which, really, just makes more sense. No one asked why the family didn't just go into wine-making instead - they make such tasty cheeses it's a good thing they took the path they did. The cheeses are made with all-natural ingredients, and over the course of their century-long history, they've fine-tuned their methods and raw materials. Their cheeses are made with milk from cows fed on fresh grass in the summertime, which purportedly gives milk more suited to cheese making. These wheels of Gouda ripen better, and give a milder, creamier taste.
While the tasting session was a rather indulgent affair, it wasn't quite as hedonistic an experience as "Wine and Cheese Tasting" seems to imply. We were put to work! Everyone had a table to fill out, in which we had to take down notes detailing the five different cheeses we were trying that afternoon. It was a mixture of information given to us by the excellent Expert Cheese Taster guiding us through the tasting, along with our own opinions of each cheese, both with wine and without. At the end of the tasting session, everyone handed over their worksheets for inspection, and those that passed muster got the certificate on the other side of the page signed. I now have a dramatically flourishing signature that indicates Expert Cheese Taster Guillaume Pieters has declared me a fellow Expert Cheese Taster. M has kept in in a folder along with all my other school certificates, but I doubt it's something I can legitimately put in my resume.
The hardest part of the session, and thus the part most joked about, surrounded the difficulties we all had in describing the taste and smell of the five different cheeses we sampled. Of course we all knew they tasted dissimilar, but unlike wine where we have a more extensive vocabulary to describe the bouquet and each sip, we found ourselves quite stuck when it came to cheese. How did they smell? Well, they all smelled like cheese. They all tasted like cheese as well. They all had varying degrees of milky, creamy hints, and maybe if you imagined hard enough, a faint nuttiness or caramel sweetness. When prodded, some people were able to catch whiffs of grass in certain cheeses, and when the rest of us were looking for that, we found that yes, we could see where they were coming from with that. Tasting sessions may all just be exercises in priming, but gosh are they fun.
Because of the stark difference in flavours between the cheeses, it came as a surprise to novices like us that the set of cow cheeses we tried were effectively the same cheese, made from the same raw materials and with the same procedures, just aged for different periods of time. Likewise for the goat's cheese. The cheeses were all aged in the same warehouse in Woerden, located next to the Old Rhine River. The same warehouse has been used since 1906 for cheese ripening, and over time it has developed its own special microclimate, adjusted as necessary over the course of the seasons by opening and closing the large shutters that run up and down its sides. The enzymes and other micro-organisms inhabiting this natural drying system impart greater complexity to the cheeses than artificially created conditions can. We found that cheese tasting sessions could also be enjoyed at the warehouse itself, which the video at the beginning of the session had made out to be a rather magical place.
The goat milk cheeses we tried were quite unlike the heavier and smellier offerings we had elsewhere. The mild, milky sweetness of the cheese we began with was a lovely start, especially for those of us not terribly keen on goat cheese. The young cheese had a soft, smooth consistency, while the older cheese had a fuller flavour reminiscent of butter and hay. These were made with pasteurized milk in order to achieve a hardness in the cheese. Goats process the beta-carotene they eat into Vitamin A, which is colourless, resulting in cheeses that remain milky white. Cows on the other hand, don't process the beta-carotene, which goes into their milk and releases pigments during the cheese-making process, resulting in a range of golden-yellow hues.
I though the best cheese of the lot was the Reypenaer X.O. (Extra Old) Reserve, the oldest (Aged 2.5 years) and crumbliest, studded through with slightly bitter cheese crystals that really enhanced the other savoury flavours. Being more mindful of what I was tasting amplified the eating experience, and I found myself appreciating the cheeses far more that I would have ordinarily. Left with a hunk of cheese from the store and a new gastronomic principle to live by.