Jules Wesselink was 15 when an American B-17 was shot down near his home in Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 1944. He was 21 when he and his wife, Corrie, left Holland to join the Dutch dairymen of Southern California. He was 64 when he finally learned the fate of the crew of the B-17 and 66 when he went back to the Netherlands to celebrate the liberation by the Allies. On that trip he happened to buy an amateur cheese-making kit.
Today, at 73, he is a keen amateur historian of the U.S. 100th Bomb Group and one of the best cheese-makers in California. His Winchester Gouda is one of a small number of authentic Goudas now made anywhere in the world, including Holland. It is served at top restaurants, including Artisan, Tribeca Grill and the Gramercy Tavern in New York.
“Isn’t it amazing what you can do by accident?” he says, beaming.
That smile. Those twinkling blue eyes. The man could have invented merriment. Go to his farm in a rock-strewn patch of Riverside County, meet Wesselink, and his life seems more a feat of attitude than accident. He reeks of bonhomie even when he’s complaining about his pronounced limp. “Everything hurts,” he laughs. “If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t work any more.”
It is impossible to separate the way Wesselink approaches making cheese from the way he approaches life. A good day is one in which family is near, something expensive in a store can be made economically at home, and there is food on the table, preferably a cheese sandwich. A bad day? Wesselink grew up under the bombs of World War II. His teenage years in Haarlem were spent hungry.
“All we did at the end of the war is get our food and stay alive,” he says. “Today you see people in the grocery store. They don’t like something, they throw it down. I tell them, ‘Never throw food away.’ During that war, you couldn’t find a cat on the street.”
His family worked for the resistance, he says; “Everyone did.” Their job was to help downed Allied airmen to a port where British boats would collect them. When that B-17 was shot down near Haarlem, one of 177 lost to enemy fire by the 100th Bomb Group, he became obsessed by the fate of the fliers, all of whom were eventually captured by the Germans. He kept a photograph of the wrecked B-17.
When the war ended, he joined the Dutch army, served in Indonesia and returned to Holland, where he married his childhood sweetheart, Corrie van Loon. In 1951, they followed two of Corrie’s brothers to Artesia, where Dutch immigrants ran most of the dairy farms. By 1958, he had his own farm and eight of Corrie’s 11 siblings had also emigrated to California. “We made sure California would be populated,” he says.
As suburbs crowded the old L.A. dairies, Wesselink’s family moved first to Chino in 1968 and then, in 1978, to Winchester, a part of Riverside County so barren that it seems to be more rock than earth. Winchester’s not everyone’s cup of place. Even developers seem to have left it alone.
But from Wesselink’s perspective, a craggy patch off Route 79 was ideal. The fewer people around, the fewer people to complain about the kind of farm smells that happen when you have herds the size of Wesselink’s, which at its peak swelled to 960 cows.
Though Winchester might sound like a good place to leave, Wesselink’s family stayed near. Most of his wife’s family settled close by. His brother-in-law Piet Van Loon made his dairy equipment. His sons, Leo and Jules Jr., formed allied businesses clipping cattle hoofs and fermenting oats to make livestock feed. One daughter, Valerie Thomas, and her husband, David, joined his cheese-making business. His other daughter, Pauline, invested in the business. There are 11 grandchildren. At any one time, there will likely be three generations of Wesselinks and van Loons around the place.
The turn to cheese-making was part accident, part economic forces and part tradition. “The whole dairy business went kind of kerplunk in the late 1980s,” says Wesselink. As he accumulated more and more cows but got less and less for money for their milk, a fortuitous meeting awakened his fighting spirit. During a holiday in Albuquerque, he spotted someone wearing a B-17 bomber jacket. The man was from the 99th Bomb Group. In no time, the stranger had all five crew members of the downed B-17 from the 100th Bomb Group on the phone.
“We were so excited, we were shaking,” says Wesselink. A meeting was held in Cleveland, where Wesselink finally heard stories about how they had been slowly picked up by Germans. One, a gunner named John Seaman, turned himself in, says Wesselink, when he feared a Dutch child had been killed for having helped him and more people might be executed.
Two years later, Wesselink returned to Haarlem for the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Europe. He rode in tanks with British veterans. Canadians were put up in the homes of Dutch families. “It was absolutely unbelievable!” he says.
Outside of the celebrations, Wesselink preoccupied himself with milk. His wife’s family had long made Gouda. “I stayed with relatives that make cheese,” he says. “For about a week, I made cheese.”
Before leaving Holland, he bought a do-it-yourself Gouda kit. “It had a little deal with a knife, and two 2-pound molds, another little deal with a culture and another little deal with rennet,” he says. “I made two baby wheels of cheese. I don’t think we waited two months before eating it, but it was good.”
Gradually a cheese plant was fashioned out of what he could afford and what worked. Wesselink bought 30 molds for 2-pound cheeses from the Hollandia Dairy in Escondido, then large ones from Holland. With the help of Van Loon, a trailer was converted into their first cheese room. “So much of what you see is self-invented,” he says. This includes the shelves, the cutters and the succession of interlocking trailers (now up to three) that serves as the cheese-making area.
The family quickly graduated from using a 60-gallon tank per batch to a 250-gallon one, then to 600, to 1,250. Now that the tank is big enough for Wesselink to swim a lap in, Valerie and David make the cheese.
While building up the cheese business during the last six years, Wesselink wound down the dairy. He let the herd of Holsteins dwindle to 400, then sold the cows. “It was too much,” he says. Their buyer was a Dutch neighbor, who still keeps the herd in the same neighboring paddock. He still supplies the milk.
So the Wesselink Dairy became the Winchester Cheese Co. The Wesselinks use the old Dutch term “boere kaas” to describe their product. It means “farm-made cheese.” At their dairy, milk is pumped into the cheese-making tank minutes after leaving the cow. It is not pasteurized. The first step is adding a culture of beneficial bacteria and enzymes to curdle the milk.
After 45 minutes or an hour, Wesselink says, “the milk is like yogurt. Val comes in and tests the curd for firmness by drawing her arm through it. If it breaks in a straight line, it’s ready, and if it breaks in a jagged line, it’s not.
“Then you put the knives in,” he says, pointing to a rig that slowly draws two large paddles faced with open blades the length of the tub. “The curd goes to the bottom and the whey goes to the top.”
The whey, he says, carries the lactose. “It’s real sweet, like sugar water,” he says. After draining the main part of the whey, the curd is turned by a propeller-type blade, called an auger, to remove yet more whey.
But you don’t want to remove it all, Wesselink cautions: “You want some sweetness left. So when Val is making cheese, she is constantly tasting. There will be cups of whey everywhere.”
The whey siphoned off is pumped back to the barn, combined with feed and given to the cows. “They love it,” he says. Once the curd is ready, a tray is hooked up to the side of the tub to hold net-lined molds and the curd is “hooped”--scooped into the molds. Then Valerie will crumble it by hand to fine pieces. This is another labor-intensive step foregone by factories, says Wesselink. “It leaves many tiny holes in the cheese. You want those tiny holes. They allow air and good fumes to travel in the cheese as it ages.”
Now it’s time for pressing. The cheeses are stacked under a weight to create a tight texture. Halfway through pressing, the cheeses are flipped and reversed in order of the stack, so the pressure is equal for each side of each cheese.
Quotes for a factory-made press came in at $15,000, says Wesselink. He and Van Loon made theirs out of piping, T-joints and weights from Home Depot. It cost $150.
After pressing, the young cheeses go into brine tanks. Unlike many cheeses, Wesselink’s Gouda is not salted as the curd forms. The only salt it sees is when it is submerged in salt water for two days. Not all types of cheeses are brined. Cheddar isn’t. Cheese-makers who do brine offer many mystical explanations about its benefits. In the case of Gouda, the important factor is that it helps the soft cheese form a rind to see it through at least two months and as much as a year of aging.
From the brine tank, the young Goudas are dried and then given a light vegetable extract coating. This allows them to breathe as they age. After a year of aging, a 15-pound cheese will end up weighing about 11 pounds. By contrast, a factory Gouda with a red plastic coating will not breathe, which goes a long way to explain its wet, rubbery texture.
Wesselink’s own attitude toward authenticity is flexible. On the echt side, he is adamant about the use of raw milk. Cooking the milk destroys flavor and his aging of the cheese kills any pathogens. Crumbling curd is essential. Factory waxes are unacceptable.
With age and evaporation of water comes flavor. His mild (2-month-old), medium (3-month), sharp (6-month) and “super-aged” (year-old) cheeses could all come from Holland, except that real Gouda has become rare there too. It is nothing like bland, flaccid factory cheeses, but surprisingly like a top-notch Parmigiano-Reggiano: nutty with a pleasing tang and crumbling texture.
But in a nod to the eclectic tastes of the Californian market, Wesselink also makes young Goudas with all manner of special flavorings, including garden herbs, jalapenos and cumin. The demand from foodies, however, has been for the un-enhanced versions, particularly the super-aged.
Prices range from $5.95 a pound for the mild Gouda to $11.35 a pound for the super-aged.
It began when Wesselink saw cheese expert Steven Jenkins’ description of aged Gouda being hard to make in his book “The Cheese Primer.” “My dad contacted him and said, ‘No, it’s not,’” says Valerie. “‘We’re making it right here.’”
As Jenkins and others spread the word among New York foodies, the cheese went on the menus of top restaurants and was sold in Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village. In Southern California, ironically, it has slipped beneath the radar. The Beverly Hills Cheese store puts it in gift baskets at Christmas. But the rest of the year, this superb cheese receives decidedly humble merchandising. The main Southern California outlets are farmers markets stalls manned by two friends of Wesselink’s, both named Joe (Van Der Valk and Legler).
And Wesselink encourages visits to Winchester. By way of highlighting the farm as an attraction, Wesselink’s family rigged an incongruous covered wagon near Route 79. The family also makes a practice of having school groups in, though these are time-consuming and don’t make any money. “Kids need to know how farms work,” he says. “One day the kids saw the miracle of birth. Two cows calved. You could have heard a pin drop, except for one girl, who cried.”
In a small pen near the trailers, there is a quirky collection of llamas, exotic goats and ostriches. “When people want to get rid of animals, they bring them to us,” says Wesselink with a laugh. “I made them into a petting zoo.”
Inside one of the trailers, a gift shop has been set up. There are blue ribbons from fairs, murals by Corrie, a model windmill, clog-shaped fridge magnets and, best of all, cheese set out for tasting, and more for sale. Jack Lieberman, a friend of Wesselink’s, mans the phones and endures jokes about how old they both are. Valerie packs special orders for a Bay Area cheese shop.
Wesselink disappears rooting around for something. Finally he finds it. It is a dish towel commemorating the 100th Bomb Group. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asks, then murmurs to himself, “Just beautiful.”
Winchester Cheese Co., 32605 Holland Road, Winchester. (909) 926 4239. Open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. www.win chestercheese.com.
Winchester Gouda can also be purchased at these farmers markets: Sunday: Hollywood, Studio City and Long Beach Marina; Tuesday: Torrance; Wednesday: Santa Monica; Thursday: Redondo Beach and South Pasadena; Friday: Long Beach downtown; Saturday: Santa Monica and Torrance.
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