When I began researching my next cheese, a cheese popular among my friends and family, I was surprised to learn that I have been pronouncing it wrong for as long as I’ve known its tangy goodness.
Gouda cheese originates from the Netherlands and its etymology is, not surprisingly, Dutch. I have always articulated it, “Goo-dah” as I presume most Americans do. However, the Dutch say it with an “H” rather than a “G” and place a guttural emphasis on the prefix of the word, pronouncing it, “HOW-dah.”
Gouda is named after the town in which it was historically traded since the 12th century. Approximately 400 years later, with the inception of the cheese-carriers guild, a formal trading process was established that is still carried out in Holland to this day. It goes like this: the men of the guild carry cheese from the farm out to market that takes place on a regular basis, buyers and sellers negotiate prices through a system called handjeklap wherein both parties clap their hands and shout prices, then finally they bring the cheese to the weigh house and measure its cost to complete the sale.
Unlike Montasio cheese, Gouda cheese is not legally obligated to be produced in a particular region or in a particular fashion to claim its name. For this reason, Gouda cheeses across the world vary greatly in taste and texture. Gouda refers to a general kind of cheese making that allow for cheesemakers (or factories) to invoke their own discretion regarding the temperature and humidity in which its stored, the amount of time it is left to age, the type of milk used and so on. Many cheese experts scoff at the conventional Gouda that you’ll find at your local supermarket; the kind wrapped in red wax that is usually made from pasteurized cow’s milk and aged for less than 2 months. In Cheese Primer, Steven Jenkins describes this Gouda as “(one of) the most unexciting cheeses imaginable, offering little depth of flavor.” Likewise, Max McCalman and David Gibbons explain in The Cheese Plate, “almost all Dutch cheeses are factory-made and undistinguished.” The variety of Gouda that Jenkins, McCalman, Gibbons and other cheese connoisseurs turn to is a raw cow’s milk cheese that only a handful of Dutch farmers still produce which is known as Boerenkaas. Boerenkaas translates to “farmer’s cheese” in English and is a protected form of Gouda that is made in the traditional Dutch manner. What distinguishes this cheese from Sargento’s take on Gouda is mainly the type of milk used. Boerenkaas cheese is made from raw milk while conventional Gouda is made from pasteurized milk. Boerenkaas can be eaten anywhere from 4 months to 5 years or more, but cheese experts tend to agree that the older, the richer the taste.
Boerenkaas is very rare to find in cheese shops around the United States, which is why I didn’t feature it as my second of twenty-four cheeses. Instead I chose the next best option: Smith Country Cheese’s raw-milk, 1-year aged Gouda cheese.
Smith Country Cheese is a small dairy farm located an hour north of me in Winchendon, Massachusetts. I had originally heard about it from Steven Jenkins who actually recommended this creamery and its cheeses just pages before he goes on to bash conventional, supe Gouda. I should mention, however that in this Gouda chapter, Jenkins distinguishes conventional, red-wax, factory-produced Gouda from aged Gouda. Aged Gouda is a different story. While it may not live up to the complexity of Boerenkaas, a sufficiently aged Gouda (which Jenkins says is at least two years) has a “perfumy, Scotch-whisky kind of aroma-both sharp and sweet at the same time, like molten honey or butterscotch” that Jenkins declares “a truly delicious thing.” If Smith Country Cheese was expert-recommended for it’s raw-milk Gouda and was basically local to me, it was definitely worth a taste, I concluded.
Procuring and Tasting:
I visited Smith’s in person to purchase my cheese and to get a look at the farm. Tucked away from route 202, at the end of a narrow, dirt road lies this multi-award winning creamery and everything they need to produce and sell their cheeses: a herd of Holsteins cows, a cheese production room and a cute country store. They offered several cheeses including not just different variations of Gouda, but Cheddar and Havarti cheeses as well. I settled on the aged Gouda (aged one year) and hickory-smoked Gouda (aged two months).
This post’s tip on how to access artisanal cheeses for cheaper is to try and buy them from their source to avoid distribution costs. The smoked Gouda was $9.19/lb at Smith’s shop compared to $14.00/lb at my local Whole Foods Market.
First, the aged Gouda: it had a firm, almost hard texture with holes here and there. It tasted oaky and tangy, but not too sharp which perfectly complements a bitter beverage like an IPA. I enjoyed it accompanied with a Sierra Nevada Torpedo. I could tell it was aged longer than most other Goudas I have tasted before. Its flavor was – as all raw, aged cheeses are – rich and complex.
The smoked Gouda was much softer than the aged Gouda, which I’m guessing is due to its younger age. It smelled like firewood and had a golden skin around it. Its taste was hard to compare to the aged Gouda because its smokiness made it taste like a completely different cheese.
To be honest, I found it frustrating to draw out specific characteristics from the Gouda. It tasted so flavorful, yet I had a hard time pinning descriptors to it. I began to doubt myself and wondered if I should have focused my post on Boerenkaas instead which would have probably offered me stronger flavors that were more unique. I started to feel like I was in over my head in trying to write about the taste of this cheese.
But then I remembered something.
I recalled a conversation I had had with a cheesemonger* at Manhattan’s Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro. She told me that she feels that one of the primary purposes of her job is to ease the intimidation that folks often feel towards cheese. Cheese is about something so much more universal than identifying sophisticated, buried notes.
First and foremost, cheese is about appealing to our primitive senses as humans that we’ve collectively developed over time and across cultures. All humans have their own taste and their own backgrounds that shape their culinary preferences. It’s also about connecting us to our ancient roots when cheesemaking was first discovered all the way up to modern times where cooking developments are continuing to take place. Lastly, it’s about the eternal mystery of why things die and what happens to them after they die.
Even though I don’t have many definitive descriptors to offer about the Gouda I tried, I’m still glad I tried it because it taught me a lot about Dutch history, it got me in touch with a farm in my local economy and it was DELICIOUS, no matter how you describe it.
* Historically, cheesemongers were the people who bought and sold cheese. Today, cheesemongers are more often used to describe the person behind the counter who helps customers decide on what cheeses to buy.
Cooking with Gouda:
I turned to Smith Country Cheese’s tried and true Alfredo Sauce recipe in which to include my Gouda. It was simple and easy to make and called for only ingredients that you probably have lying around your house, aside from the aged Gouda of course. I enjoyed it over fettuccine with broccoli. Although I couldn’t taste the aged Gouda through the dish, the homemade cream sauce was a great touch to the meal!