Cheesemonger Frank Captein on good, clean and fair farmers
"We have 170 cows. I know them all by name and know who is a daughter of whom,' says Frank Captein. Frank (33) is one of thirty Dutch Masters who presented their regional products at the Grüne Woche in Berlin last week. In his case Farmers Gouda Cheese.
Text // Ulrike Schmidt
Image // Leonie van der Geest, Family Captein & Slow Food Netherlands
Under the motto 'Taste the Dutch Masters', in analogy with the Dutch masters of painting, Slow Food Netherlands together with the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the Provinces and NBTC Holland Marketing during the Grüne Woche in Berlin from 17 to 26 January put thirty producers of local products in the spotlight. To make the concept of masterful food come to life, a 17th-century still life by Floris Claesz van Dijck has been recreated by artist Jasper Udink ten Cate and experience designer Jeroen Prins. The work is made up of real local products, highlighted in the theatrical light of the masters of the 17th century.
What makes the Boers Gouda Cheese so tasteful?
It is a hard cheese that is made on its own yard from the raw fresh, full-fat milk of the 170, largely red-boned, Holsteiner cows of The Captein Cheese Farm. Frank: 'Our family has run a cheese farm on the Weipoort in Zoeterwoude for generations. The cows walk out on the peat soil as long as possible and only eat the grass they find there.' The recipe and the method of preparation of the cheese has not changed substantially since the peasants in the Green Heart made it in the Middle Ages. 'The curd is pressed into linen cloths in wooden barrels. The milk is not heated hotter than 29.8°C. The bacteria from the field or from the stable suggest a very own microflora. We also add some water to the milk. This prevents the cheese from getting too acidic. It's more of a sweet, nutty flavour.'
What is the place of the Farmers Gouda Cheese in Slow Food?
The Boers Gouda Cheese is one of the products in the Ark of The Taste of Slow Food. The cheese is only made by Kaasboerderij Captein and Hoeve Waterrijk who have united in the Slow Food Presidency Boeren Gouda Cheese that is dedicated to preserving and spreading this culinary heritage. This means that they follow a strict protocol in the artisanal production of the cheese. For example, the cheese must be made from the raw milk of cows that have grazed outside day and night to carry the Slow Food label. Its production is therefore only possible for part of the year. In addition, the cheese must ripen for at least 18 months. 'But also two-, three or five-year-old cheese is terribly delicious,' says Frank. 'Even then, it's still very creamy. The crystals that only emerge after a few years of maturation are not salty, which many people think. These are caused by the fact that the enzymes in the cheese continue to develop long after production. It is the fresh grass milk and the whole process that together determine the taste and appearance of the cheese.'
"When we talk about biodiversity, it actually starts with the whole microflora of maturation bacteria"
– Frank Captein
How do you contribute to the 'clean' part in the objective 'good, clean, fair' of Slow Food?
To what extent does the business contribute to biodiversity, for example? Frank: 'Well, when we talk about biodiversity, it actually starts with the whole microflora of maturation bacteria. Of course we work with raw milk, the composition changes from day to day. This is completely different from the milk that is conditioned for factory production of cheese and which must always be constantly in composition.' Anyway, there has to be more than just the cheese bacteria when we talk about biodiversity, right? 'To some extent, we can help some species by the way we manage our country. Volunteers from nature organizations take stock in the spring where the meadow bird nests are. We'll mow around that. But you know, even though we save the nests, the rest of the field is mowed. So the eggs and juveniles become easy prey for foxes and birds of prey. But I have to mow the grass to have hay for my cows. So what we do helps the meadow birds a little bit. If we know that there are a lot of nests in a certain part of the field, then we don't mow that whole stretch between March and June.' The thing is, Frank says: if a meadow bird can raise its nest, the chances are very good that he will return to the same spot the following year. And if he doesn't, he'll be flying forever.
Are you somehow rewarded for taking into account the meadow birds?
'Yes, as a farmer you get a fixed amount per bird that is counted. So say ten euros for a turel hour. But that only works with a minimum total number of birds. For us, the number last year was too small to be eligible for that subsidy at all. But we're going to continue with this meadow bird management, you know.'
Why is biodiversity important?
Biodiversity is about the variety of plants, animals and microorganisms and the genetic variation within those species in a given area. But biodiversity is also about the diversity of areas themselves. This multiness makes nature resilient to profound changes such as climate change, but also natural disasters. A mixed forest, for example, is not destroyed as quickly by a storm as a forest with only one species, and a field with only one crop is more susceptible to diseases and pests than mixed planting. The more variety, the more chance of adaptation and survival. In addition, all kinds of studies have shown that people feel more comfortable in a green environment and in nature. Landscapes help us relax. So even for those less hard values, the existence of many different types of utility.
"I like to see flowers and herbs along the edges of the meadows. That attracts butterflies, bees, bumblebees and other insects"
– Frank Captein
How do you deal with fertilizers and pesticides?
'I really like to see flowers and herbs along the edges of the meadows. That attracts butterflies, bees, bumblebees and other insects. But yes, if there is sorrel or thistles, then the grass in a large circle around it goes to the buttons. So I'm going to use pesticides anyway, even if it's a minimum. We've been considering organic farming. Initially for our 180 eighty pigs. If we kept it organic, we could do without an air wash. It's like organic pigs don't stink… Either way. That installation was a big investment, so financially it would have been worth it. But then we should have completely transitioned to organic for the cheese. The pigs get the meadow as feed. If it is not certified organic, the pigs are no longer allowed to be called 'organic'. Without weed control and small amounts of fertilizer, we just don't have enough good grass for our cows. So the step towards organic is not yet possible for us to do.
Are your cows out all year?
'Our cows graze outside for as long as possible 24 hours a day. Not just in the summer, but all year round.' Only last year it was extremely hot, and therefore extremely dry. 'Very bizarre', says Frank, 'then we had to keep our cows in the barn 24 hours a day in the middle of summer, because there was simply no fresh grass halm left in the meadow'. The world upside down. The cows are fed with hay from the grass of their own country.
'In the last five years, we've only had to spray one bottle (100 ml) of antibiotics with our pigs. Unfortunately, the cows are different. The fact that the pigs are doing so well is – I think – because there are no other pigs in the wide environment, so the disease pressure is low. And because they can drink unlimited cheese wewei, wildly healthy food. And finally because my father, the pig farmer, takes such good care of them!'
"As soon as the calf is born and the mother licks it clean and dry, we milk the mother by hand on the spot (as Grandpa did)"
– Frank Captein
And how do the calves grow up with you?
'A cow veines with us in a separate pen with a thick layer of clean straw. Although the loft is as clean as possible, it always remains a source of germs and bacteria. A calf is born without resistance, which builds it up by drinking colostrum. The more colostrum, the more building and antibodies the calf receives from its own mother. This is vital for the calf's life. As soon as the calf is born and the mother licks it clean and dry, we milk the mother by hand on the spot (as Grandpa did). On average, this results in a liter or six colostrum, which we give directly to the newborn calf with a teat bottle. A healthy calf then drinks four litres of colostrum within ten minutes with ease. Then we make sure that a completely clean calf crib is ready, again with a thick layer of fresh straw at the bottom as a warm blanket. When the temperature of the outside air drops, they even get a nice 'kalverbodywarmer'. All in all, the calf stays with its mother for one to two hours. As soon as we remove the calf, the mother, who received a modified ration of food during "maternity leave", gets fresh dairy cow rations in front of her nose again. It then only eats non-stop for an hour and then proceeds to the order of the day. This means that she spends one to two days in the straw of our "intensive care" and then reconnects with her friends in the couple.'
What about the calves that don't stay on the farm?
The cows of Kaasboerderij Captein are on average quite old, about eight years. That's why the Captein's have enough of about forty calves a year to keep the herd up. The remaining chastes and bulls are sold at about three weeks to another dairy farmer or to a calf farmer who rears them until they are around nine months old. Then they are sold to a slaughterhouse like veal.
To what extent do you manage to get a 'fair' price for your cheese?
'I'm happy with the price we get for our cheese. But I also definitely think it helps that we make something unique. Certainly in recent years, large volumes of cheese are made here and there on farms here and there from milk that may or may not have undergone heat treatment. We cannot compete with that in terms of price. But by telling our story and continuing to provide good quality, we manage to get a good price for it. Our farm shop certainly contributes to this. I estimate that through our shop we still drop off about 30 to 40% of our production.' In the farm shop, the cheesemonger can determine the price a little easier than when selling to the market. Frank adds: 'But the best thing about the store is the contact with the consumer. Just as a few years ago the "calf by the cow discussion" flared up so enormously. If we can then show directly behind the shop, in the barn and explain how we treat our animals, then every consumer with a good feeling, an experience and a nice piece of cheese richer goes home.'
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This article was written in the context of 'Taste the Dutch Masters' which was on the rise from 17 to 26 January 2020 during the Grüne Woche (International Green Week) in Berlin. The campaign puts sustainably produced Dutch local products and producers in the spotlight. Taste the Dutch Masters is an initiative of the Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality, the Dutch Provinces, NBTC – Holland Marketing and was organized and presented by Slow Food Netherlands.