Jen suggests we go Old World traditional first and visit a true family farm, one where the whole process happens in-house: the farmer grows the feed that feeds the cows, and milks the milk that makes the cheese. That means Mountainoak cheese isn’t only artisanal but also farmstead, where the only milk used for cheese production is from animals raised by the maker.
“Farming is not an occupation. It is a way of living,” says Adam van Bergeijk, as he welcomes us to his handsome 200-acre dairy farm.
For van Bergeijk, who has farmed most of his life since he took over the family dairy farm back in Holland in 1976, it’s always been about the cow.
“I love my Holstein. They are really sweet animals. When I walk in the herd, they come up to me. They know me and I know them by name,” says van Bergeijk, who oversees a herd of 200.
“Everything that you do with the cows is
going to be paid back to your milk. If you be good to them, they’re going to be good to you,” Adam says in a thick genial Dutch accent.
After years of milking, van Bergeijk wanted to try his hand at cheese. In Holland, that meant Gouda, the country’s signature cheese and one of the oldest still made today; the earliest recording is in 1184. Nearly 800 years later, in 1981, van Bergeijk and his wife, Hannie, enrolled in Cheesemaking School in the town of Gouda where Adam went on to become an instructor.
Gouda today refers more to a general style of cheesemaking rather than to a specific kind of cheese, the taste varying greatly based on age. My neighbour, Jen, explains: A young Gouda can be described as buttery with a slight mild nutty flavour, while the more mature cheese has a complex and subtle sharpness with hints of butterscotch that can take on an almost whisky-like flavour if aged over two years.
“It’s a myth that Gouda is bland. You’re just eating the wrong Gouda.”
It’s true, says van Bergeijk. Aging is key, but really cheesemaking is all in the hands.
“I have to feel the curd between my fingers. I can tell how ready it is in the process. A good cheesemaker has to have a sense of touch,” says van Bergeijk, whose hands massage imaginary curd as he speaks.
“If you don’t have the touch, you can’t make good cheese.”
Soon enough, the van Bergeijks’ sons wanted to farm for themselves, “but Holland is really, really crowded,” says Adam. There just wasn’t enough land, and, too many cheesemakers.
In the back of his mind, he had hoped to one day bring the tradition of fine Gouda to Canada.
In 1996, at 45, he bought a farm in Alberta. “It was December,” Adam said, laughing. “It was minus 38. No way!” In a few months, encouraged by a fellow Dutch immigrant farmer, they relocated to Oxford County.
For the next 15 years, Adam and his family established themselves in milk production, but the Gouda dream never died.
“It took us a while to get licences and permits together… plus, really, you need six figures to be in this business.”
Today, both van Bergeijk sons farm: one at Mountainoak with Adam; and the other on a dairy farm down the road. Their daughter married a neighbouring dairy farmer.
The first Gouda, made from same-day, non-homogenized and unpasteurized milk, was ready for the public in July of 2012. Today they make 16 varieties, from a soft and crunchy Aged Cumin Gouda to a zesty Wild Nettle.
Their aging room holds about 3,000 wheels, each turned by hand every other day.