Foodie Finds #12 with Karen Harvey – Cheese Valley (Holland) Special

I’d never eaten cheese fondue in my life, and then, by luck and good fortune, I managed to eat it twice in one day!

I was fortunate enough to be invited on the most wonderful tour of Cheese Valley, a small region in an area known as the Green Heart of Holland, covering four towns and cities, each with its own cheese history and traditions. Bodegraven-Reeuwijk, Gouda, Krimpenerwaard, and Woerden.

I am a big fan of The Netherlands, so it won’t be a surprise to hear that I enjoyed myself, but to be honest, I had no idea it would be this good. Amazing food, good company, great weather, loads of cats, a carriage ride, a giant cheese, and I got licked by a cow – what’s more to love?!

In Gouda’s Unique restaurant I sat at the end of a long table, surrounded by lovely people and summer evening light streaming through the windows, my eyes bulged at every course that arrived in front of me.

Gazpacho. Steak tartar. Risotto with Chicken of the Woods mushroom and Madeira jus. Dutch beef with asparagus. Apple tarte tatin with basil ice cream.

I’ve never eaten Chicken of the Woods, to be honest, I didn’t know it was edible. The texture of chicken, but it’s a mushroom – some sylvan trickery right there. It used to grow from a tree trunk in our garden, and when it looked ripe to spore I would walk past with my breath held, just in case. Had I known it would make a delicious dinner I would have gone at it with a knife and fork.

In the morning, after a meander through the town, we ventured through a hidden door in the back room of an unassuming waffle shop and discovered the Kamphuisen siroop wafel factory.

Climbing the spiral staircase, we watched the conveyor belt from above. Double baked waffles with sticky caramel syrup clip-clopped their way past below. Downstairs we could collect a hot, fresh waffle. There was a slide to take you straight to them.

Throwing myself down a chute in a food factory has never seemed quite sensible to me, (I’ve seen Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) so I took the stairs.

The smell of warm waffle wafted.

Cheese

In the centre of Gouda, opposite the magnificent Town Hall, is De Goudse Waag. What was once the Weigh House for all the cheese of Gouda, is now a centre for cheese tasting, cheese buying, and cheese museum-ing (You’re right, I didn’t think that one through).

They call their Gouda cheese ‘yellow gold’. For centuries these cheeses were made in the region and traded in Gouda city. Not made there, just traded there.

We rummaged round the museum, marvelling at the frames full of fascinating (and often quite amusing) cheese labels, and ate cheeses of different ages – young cheeses just four weeks old, and old cheese that had been matured for two years or more. Good cheese. None of that springy rubbery supermarket stuff you might have been misled to believe was Dutch cheese.

Cheese

Leaving Gouda we drove alongside the green covered canal and squeezed through narrow streets, arriving at De Munt, a restaurant located in an old bank in Bodegraven.

We were welcomed with plates of local cheese, served traditionally with mustard, and trays of drinks. At first, I thought we would need to choose a drink each, but no, all five glasses were for me. Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, a couple of different Leffe beers and a very grapefruity double beer from the local brewery, de Molen.

Cheese

Then came the fondue. I’ve never had fondue before, ever.

Everything was local, top quality, easy to source, and delicious to eat. Goose with strawberries and raspberry vinegar. Crayfish with local beef. Beef with tomato and herbs. Chips with truffle mayo. Cheese fondue and bread. I repeat, cheese fondue and bread!

Gratefully clutching cones of award-winning full-fat vanilla ice cream in hand, we continued on to the brewery (what kind of dream world is this that I am living in?)

Brouwerij de Molen is one of the top 100 breweries in the world (and number one in The Netherlands) making 20 regular craft beers, and over 1000 variations – they like to experiment, and they’re good at it!

Back on the road, and a short trip down narrow lanes with steep banks dropping away, down to the dykes and the fields, goats and cows, we arrived at De Twee Hoeven.

Cheese

Milking 180 cows each day, this fourth-generation farm produces 150,000 kilos of cheese every year. We toured the farm, saw the cheese making facilities, the big salt water baths that the cheeses are dropped into, the stores and then, the cows. It was coming up to 5pm and the ladies were wandering in from the fields for milking time. Everything was immaculately clean, spacious and genuinely top-notch, but I couldn’t help but think it was like a cattle work camp, with the best conditions though, and how horrible some dairy farming methods are in other parts of the world.

Cow

A cow licked my elbow and I thought my day was made, until I discovered a pile of cats, and had my second fondue of the day. Second fondue of my life. The dream!

Making room for more food, which is not so hard to do when it’s delicious (and I do think all the good cheese acted as a digestif) we spent the evening at De Florijn in Nieuwerbrug, on the Rhine.

The restaurant has been awarded the Michelin Bib Gourmand for nine years in a row. Chef Brenda de Graaf greeted us with a delicious, and in many ways, rather unusual, menu.

Broad beans with egg yolk and courgette. Local beef with caper berry and sunflower seeds. Asparagus panna cotta with tarragon meringue, apple and watercress. Turnip top soup with tomato. Lamb with white asparagus and peas. And a dessert of rhubarb – sorbet, ice cream, mousse, macaron.

I don’t think I’ve had a savoury panna cotta before, certainly not with asparagus and meringue. On the first mouthful I was disturbed – my brain knew the consistency and said it should be sweet, not savoury. I persisted, my brain learnt something new.

Everything was great, but the dessert was greatest.

Cheese

When I woke up it was Grass Cheese Day.

Excited, I rushed down to meet the others. After a short walk around Woerden, taking in the Mill de Windhond (windhond means greyhound) with it’s paper bags of pancake flour for sale, and the 100 year old Reypenaer cheese warehouse, on our way, we arrived at the Cheese Experience Centre.

We were greeted by the mayor of Woerden and watched a film about cheese. Grass Cheese Day is all about celebrating the start of a new cheese season. In the spring the cows are let out into the lush green meadows to feed on the fresh grass, the first cheese made with this milk is the Grass Cheese

Woerden’s first farmers market was held in 1410 and is famous for its regional products. The cheeses arrive on tractors, and on Grass Cheese Day, the dignitaries and visitors arrive in horse drawn carriages.

Cheese

Climbing up into a traditional carriage, drawn by two horses, we became cheese guests on parade. Through the streets, behind the band, waving at passers-by and cheering children, a line of carriages behind us, and somewhere, a massive 150 kilo cheese to be auctioned off for charity.

Cheese

Four men wrestled the cheese beast onto the stage, the crowd went wild, press camera-flashes firing, the band playing on. There was even a special cheese song. Someone told me the lyrics said ‘on your breast, cheese tastes best on your breast’. I’ve google translated it. Bread not breast.

“The cheese the cheese, everything is smooth
Nothing is better on your bread
He is keen on big people
Everyone praises the cheese on the cheese
Hooray, you are full fat”

There was also something about a magic wand taking care of the peasant women, but I forget. It was one of the most surreal experiences of my life, and I just went with it, embraced it, and thought about the cheese, and the waffles.

Cheese

Cheese

I watched the auction (and managed to keep my arms from flailing high in biding motion), the show, the old-fashioned traditions, the heritage, costumes and community. Apart from a few signs of modernity (like the camera in my hand) this could have been any year, any era.

My cheese allowance didn’t quite reach to the €15,200 of the charity mega cheese, but Joel lent me five euros for some ginger cheese and I was content.

We ate a quick lunch in Van Rossum, a converted arsenaal, now a hotel with a welcoming and relaxed bar and restaurant – open kitchen, big oak beams and excellent decor. Salad with roasted carrots and Blue de Grave cheese. Perfect entrecote. Gutted I had to leave before the strawberry madeleines came out.

I rushed to my train, and it seemed like it was no time at all before was sitting on the flight home. All I could wonder was, when the alarm goes off in the morning, will it be Grass Cheese Day all over again?

And, in other foodie news…

I’ll be back soon with some more Foodie Finds to share, until then, if you’ve got something you think we should know about, please get in touch… send biscuits!

With the greatest thanks to Visit Holland and Cheese Valley for making this trip possible. As always, my opinions are my own (and my ability to eat cheese is unsurpassed).