Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Dutch cheese is lekker!

Lekker : adjective (slang) delicious, tasty, luscious, choice, savoury, palatable, dainty, delectable, mouthwatering, yummy , scrumptious (informal), appetizing, toothsome, ambrosial

Example: 'We had a really lekker meal.'

Recently, Will and I had the pleasure of visiting Holland for two purposes:
  1. to research a new model for humane egg production on a commercial scale, the Rondeel model
  2. to visit a sheep farm that produces cheese from a traditional, non-dairy breed of sheep, the Texel.
Our trip started in Amsterdam where we were able to visit a couple of neighborhood farmer's markets. Dutch friends were able to confirm a renewed interest in locally-produced products and a resurgence of interest in farmer's markets amongst the Dutch.

We did look for locally-produced products and farms featured at local restaurants, but really didn't see as much of this as is common in the U.S. these days.

After a day in Amsterdam, our first stop was a day trip to Barneveld to visit the poultry museum, the Pluimveemuseum. There was an interesting display on the history of the chicken in Holland including several breeds developed in Holland like the Barneveld and Welsummer. These two breeds are known for their dark brown eggs which may look familiar to those of you enjoying Whitmore Farm eggs - we raise Welsummers!

Barneveld chickens

The primary purpose of our visit however was a visit to a commercial poultry operation using the Rondeel model. This model is offered as a humane option for commercial egg production by the Rondeel organization in Holland. http://www.rondeel.org/

The basic design of the structure was a central service core, with laying areas and 'lounge' areas numbered 1 and 2 below, and then a ring of open space for ranging, scratching and such (area 3).
Unfortunately, as Will explained, chickens typically form 'family groups' compromised of a rooster and a group of hens up to about 20 birds in a more natural environment.

When crowded in commercial production facilities, this normal social structure breaks down and pathologic behavior emerges - pecking and egg-eating being two examples.

Consequently, hens are debeaked to prevent damage from pathologic pecking, eliminating their ability to 'scratch', further worsening this disconnect from normal habitat, behavior, and family structure.

Stress also significantly and negatively impacts the immune system, increasing the chances of disease, decreasing production, and increasing emergence of pathogenic organisms like salmonella and shigella in the end product.

I think both Will and I were disappointed with the end product, although it was clearly was more humane than the current commercial egg production model found in the U.S.

The second part of our trip was a visit to the island of Texel, in the western end of the Friesian Islands, to the north of Amsterdam.

Our primary point of interest was a visit to De Waddel Farm, a traditional farm raising Texel sheep for meat AND dairy. De Waddel was one of only 2 farms left on the island still producing traditional Texel cheese using unpasteurized sheep's milk.

De Waddel 'schapenkass' or cheese shop!

De Waddel, circa 1625

These are some fine examples of Texel sheep. The breed is best known for phenomenal muscling and is generally considered a meat sheep. Their wool is of medium grade and has little value in today's wool market.

Texel's have a distinctive look with a clean head, heavy muscling, and a very BLOCKY head that strikes fear in the heart of most shepherds. When it comes to lambing time, imagine a square peg and a round hole - well, you get the idea.

The Bakker Family and Jan-Willem in particular took 3 hours out of his busy day to discuss his experiences with the Texel breed, management of his sheep, and what life is like for shepherds in Holland these days. It was a pretty incredible day and we enjoyed some unusually nice weather.

The cheese making workshop, attached to the main house

Some of the finished product on display. The Bakkers run a cheese shop from their house and sell locally to residents, tourists, and restaurants.

They sell 3 types of Texel cheese - young, 6 months, and 1 year.

The young cheese has a very creamy texure and all 3 have a natural rind. The 1 year is very similar to a parmesan or other sharp, dry cheese, fantastic for cooking as well as for eating.

Uncle Baker, the local postman, stops for a visit and coffee

We ended our tour with an opportunity to sit with the Bakkers and enjoy some coffee and cookies, and look over the elder Mr. Bakker's book chronicling the development and history of the Texel breed.

Unfortunately, it is only available in Dutch at present - anyone out there interested in translating and publishing an English version?

Will, Jan-Willem, and Mouse (Jan's assistant farmer) examine his best ram recently back from a Texel show. Jan said that his rams typically don't win because his farm specializes in a larger-framed sheep currently out of favor with breeders in Holland.

A wool shop in the main town on the island of Texel, Den Burg.

For the shepherds amongst you, here are a few interesting tid-bits of information and observations from our visit to the Bakker farm:
  • the wool was definitely of a finer texture than the wool we've examined on American Texels. The wool has very little lustre.
  • we saw Texels in many shades of blue, black, and grey although only white is allowed for registration.
  • the Bakkers are experimenting with crosses using the Friesian sheep (a traditional dairy breed from the islands to the east of Texel).
  • there was limited intensive rotational grazing being used.
  • Footrot is ubiquitous - all pastures and farmland were very damp with a lot of mud and standing water. The Bakkers vaccinate with the rot vaccine which causes a transient febrile illness in their sheep.
  • The Bakkers run about 500 ewes on 50 hectares, about 120 acres of sandy soil. They are limited on how much fertilization they can apply to something like 40 #'s per acre.
  • There appear to be no restrictions on the sale of unpasteurized cheese products.
  • Most lambs are sold at about 10-12 weeks (?) for about 100-110 euros each!
We recently introduced a Texel from Bev Pearsall's Farm near us in Thurmont and are excited to see what affect this has on our carcass quality in next year's product. Bev's Texels have been winning the carcass competition at the Maryland Sheep & Wool for years and we are very fortunate to have access to stock from such an accomplished breeder in our area!

Texel rams have become the breed of choice for using as a terminal sire for meat production because of their fantastic muscling. At last year's sale in Lanark (Scotland), a Texel ram sold for a world-record price of 231,000 pounds!

While our new Texel ram, Arnold Schwarzenegger, may not be world-class, we look forward to lambs from him in 2011!


  1. Hi Kent -- great posting. Now I know where that AWESOME cheese that you gave us came from! Can't wait to meet Arnold. -- you know he's Austrian, Eddie Van Halen is dutch!

  2. You should be the ones that show people how to do eggs. I have been in Canada for 2mos. and got eggs at farms here, there is no comparing your eggs!! I'm glad that you enjoyed your vacation. I'm sure it was too short.I have to send you pics of the goat farm that makes soaps. I saw one of those earless goats..HAHA. I like your blog, maybe when we are ready you can give us some advice...love you and keep us the good work!!!kim and rick

  3. I have an AgroEcology professor who is Dutch and also fluent in English who may help with a translation. I can give you his contact info if you are interested.

  4. John ~ That would be great! I was going to have my stepdad do it for me (reluctantly) but sadly, he died this past week.