THORP — People often ask Marieke Penterman where she is from.
“I always say, very proudly, Thorp,” she says.
Her accent, however, hints there is more to the story, and she soon explains that she is a native of The Netherlands.
The next question is usually aimed at learning what brought her to the small town in the heart of Wisconsin’s best dairy-producing county.
But if a new acquaintance gets a sample of Marieke’s work, the big question becomes where she learned to make such incredibly delicious Gouda cheeses — delicious enough to have accumulated dozens of national and international awards in a few short years.
One might expect a story of how she brought her skills from her homeland, where the variety of cheese was developed in the city of Gouda.
The truth, though, is that she learned to make cheese right here in Wisconsin. Her own recipe, however, has plenty of old world influence.
If you want to experience some of the story — and sample the award-winning cheeses — this Saturday is your chance, at the 3rd annual Holland’s Family Cheese open house at the farm just south of Thorp.
Marieke could fairly consider herself to be part of the original cheesehead nation. Long before Packers fans started wearing foam cheese wedges on their heads, the Dutch men went one better, and not just to be silly. In old times when the Dutch men were called to war, many used the round wooden Gouda cheese moulds as makeshift helmets.
Yes, Holland has a rich dairy farming and cheesemaking tradition, but what it doesn’t have is a lot of land.
Both Marieke and her husband Rolf come from Dutch dairy farming families. Rolf and his brother wanted to stay in the business and were in Canada looking for farm land opportunities when Rolf encountered Marieke, who was working on a Canadian farm. They stayed in touch back in Holland, though they lived an hour apart.
When Rolf found his farming opportunity in Thorp in 2002, Marieke joined him to help get him started. They were married on Dec. 23, 2003. She had arrived on a flight from The Netherlands that same day.
An enormous amount of work has taken place over the past decade at the dairy farm. The large, modern farm milks 800 head today. Marieke was more than capable of doing her part. She earned a Bachelor’s degree in Holland and worked there as a farm inspector before joining Rolf.
She was working hard on the farm, including raising their five children, all born here. But she had her own ambitions that she wanted to accomplish in life, and the cheesemaking idea was borne of that.
“We were missing the cheeses from The Netherlands. I couldn’t get used to the cheddar and Colby,” she said.
As Marieke recalls, one night she said to Rolf, “We have to milk. Why don’t we try and make cheese? And like a good husband he said, Yes, dear. Let’s talk about it in the morning.”
Marieke was serious, and hooked up with the Madison-based non-profit Dairy Business innovation Center, who helped with her business plan. She had to go back to school to get a cheesemaker’s license — Wisconsin is one of the few states that requires one.
She went back to The Netherlands to visit, and to learn from some masters. One was a lady who made her own Gouda from the milk of her 10 dairy cows. Another mentor was a farmer who milked 200. Marieke developed her own recipes from their inspiration.
Of course, it took a substantial investment to get the creamery off the ground. Cheesemaking equipment does not come cheap. But at least she didn’t have to buy the milk.
Neither did she go dip it out of the bulk tank. That’s what pipelines are for.
“The milk comes straight from the cow’s udder to the cheese vat. It’s still warm from the cow’s udder,” Marieke said. “We make the cheese within five hours of milking.“
At first, they pasteurized the milk. Now they don’t.
“We get a fuller, creamier flavor,” she said.
Making raw milk cheese means they have to hold it for 60 days before selling or serving to make sure it’s all right. They test it, too, though they are not required to.
The first batches of cheese were produced in 2006, and the success, in terms of product quality, was immediate.
After just four months in business they entered three Gouda cheeses in an international competition held in Madison: a young plain Gouda; a cumin-flavored Gouda; and a Foenegreek, a Gouda that smells like maple syrup, with a nutty flavor. The Foenegreek took first prize in its class — the largest class in the competition.
And that was just the start. Since then, they have won 60 national and international awards in five years.
In 2011, Marieke was named the Grand Master Cheesemaker at the Wisconsin State Fair, the first woman to win the award, for her Gouda Belegen.
The semi-soft Marieke Golden is one of the latest winners, taking top honors in its category. It was one of three first-place honors for Holland’s Family Cheese.
Ironically, though, the Best of Show at the 2012 World Championships went to a Gouda from Marieke’s former home country of Holland. Marieke’s own father sells milk to the creamery that made the winner.
Wisconsin had nothing to be ashamed of, though. The state dominated the 2012 world championship, even if the Dutch won the top prize. And one of the rising stars in Wisconsin cheesemaking is a native-born Dutch woman who now proudly hails from Thorp.