Okay, okay, I’ll come clean from the start. This cheese is Gouda and I have eaten Gouda before. But although it said Gouda on the label, this one looked different, casually propped up against the back of the chiller cabinet with its ‘two year aged’ label. I’ll admit it; it looked expensive and a bit vintage. It was the cheese equivalent of being beckoned onto a yacht by a leathery-skinned old oligarch jangling his Rolex at me. Reader, I fell for it.
But then I got it home and unwrapped it. I wasn’t impressed. It looked quite dry and hard, a bit cracked even, especially towards the edges. It looked like a stray Parmesan that you find at the back of the fridge. It looked like this:
But then I tasted it. Oh my.
‘Reypenaer’ means ‘ripening’ in Dutch. Usually when people talk about ‘ripe’ cheese, they mean the gooey, stinky semi-soft cheeses, like Brie and Camembert, but ripe in this context means rich and mature. Reypenaer V.S.O.P. spends a languorous two years ripening – V.S.O.P. stands for Very Superior Old Product. This means that it’s a world away from the soft, rubbery Gouda we know from the supermarket shelves. It sheds about a quarter of its original weight during the maturing process – changing from a semi-hard to a hard cheese – but what it loses in weight it more than makes up for in flavour.
Produced by the van den Wijngaard family, Reypenaer Gouda is made from the milk of cows fed on summer grass; the soil in the area is especially fertile due to the periodic flooding of the plains. The cheese is kept in a 100-year-old cheese ripening warehouse on the banks of the Old Rhine River in the green heart of Holland. Whereas factory cheese is ripened by artificially altering the temperature and humidity in which they’re stored, the Reypenaer is naturally ripened over a longer period of time. There are shutters and hatches in the building which can be opened and closed and in the winter they treat the cheese to a bit of heating but otherwise it’s pot-luck as to how hot or humid it is. In addition, there’s a wealth of bacteria and moulds nestling in the wood of the building, all of which contribute to the cheese’s taste.
Biting into Reypenaer is like the cheese equivalent of ageing fudge; yielding and creamy but you do need to use your teeth. Like fudge, it tastes of caramel and is sweet with a slight grittiness. But best of all it has tiny white pockets of sweet crystal-crunchiness that you occasionally bite into. These crunchy bits are tyrosine and although people often mistake them for salt, they’re actually clusters of amino acids. Tyrosine is the main amino acid in casein, the primary protein found in milk. When a cheese ages, the fats and sugars that make up the protein chains of casein unravel, leaving the lovely, crunchy tyrosine deposits behind.
If you like cheese, you will love Reypenaer. It’s touted all over the web as only available in special Dutch cheese caves where you have to know a secret handshake and password but I found mine in my local butchers (who I’ve previously established is not a cheese connoisseur). If you come across it, snaffle it immediately. This one really is a Dutch Old Master.