By Lorrie Baumann
As the market for quality cheeses grows, cheesemakers like Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda depend on professional cheesemongers to continue educating their customers about the products in their cases. That’s particularly important if, as some cheesemakers say, the cheese market is not driven so much by a definition of “local” that depends solely on geography as it is by a definition of “local” that connotes a community of like-minded people who share a cultural context. It’s cheesemongers who tell the stories that communicate that cultural context to their customers, Penterman observes. “It’s fun to see the cheesemonger community grow and develop a passion for the cheeses. It’s a kind of community,” she says. “Those people are so essential to the food industry. They represent us in the stores, and they talk about us, and they pass on that passion for cheese. It’s just phenomenal.”
Penterman herself experiences that sense of community among those who appreciate fine cheeses, she says. “When you go to a food show, it’s always fun to see people enjoy it, and it’s so rewarding and encouraging in what you’re doing.”
The awards that Penterman has won at many of those food shows are permanent symbols of how much her cheeses are enjoyed. Since she started making cheese in 2006, Penterman’s company, Holland’s Family Cheese, has won more than 100 national and international awards, including awards for all of its Marieke Gouda varieties. She has recently added Marieke Gouda Honey Clover, Marieke Gouda Cranberry (seasonal) and Marieke Gouda Jalapeno to her line. Marieke Gouda Bacon is the very latest flavor in the line, made in collaboration with Nolechek’s Meats, a butcher that’s local to Marieke Gouda’s home in Thorp, Wisconsin.
“They have been phenomenal. They put our Gouda in their brats and their hot dogs, so we thought we’d put their bacon in our Gouda,” Penterman says. “Bacon Gouda is really phenomenal!”
Marieka Gouda Foenegreek, which has won multiple awards, was one of the first cheeses Penterman made when she went into commercial production. She’d been thinking about adding walnuts to her gouda, but she’d hesitated because bringing tree nuts into a food facility is not done lightly. Then she tasted a fenugreek Gouda during a visit to the Netherlands and decided that the nutty flavor of the fenugreek seeds satisfied that craving without adding the tree nut complication, so she decided to try making it herself. It didn’t go well at first.
“It was so smelly in the house. I cooked the herbs in those days in our home kitchen,” she recalls. The simmering fenugreek smelled so bad that she changed her mind about adding it to her cheese, but then her husband, Rolf, suggested that she go ahead, give it a try and see how it turned out. “He doesn’t like to waste things,” Penterman says.
The cheese was aging when Penterman got a call from the Dairy Business Innovation Center to alert her to a 2007 competition. She picked a cheese to enter, and she asked one of her team members to pick a cheese. Rolf picked a third cheese, the Marieke Gouda Foenegreek. “Rolf picked the Foenegreek, and right away it won a gold award at the 2007 championship, so it was pretty cool,” Penterman says.
American consumers’ enthusiasm for Marieke Gouda and for Gouda cheeses in general is elevating both the availability and the quality of fine cheeses in the marketplace as cheesemakers improve their products to meet consumers’ expectations, Penterman says. “You can see the consumer starting to realize what good cheese is. Consumers are willing to spend a little extra to taste good cheese and to support local farmstead cheesemakers,” she says. “Overall cheese quality has improved. Flavor profiles are getting better. People are traveling and tasting cheeses and returning passionate about cheeses. I think that in general the quality for sure made a big jump in the last 10 years.”