You can of course choose to take the Hop on Hop off bus, but if you really wa nt to feel the Dutch vibes take a bike to the Henri Willig Cheese Farm. Just a few minutes outside the city centre you’ll be cycling through the typical Dutch landscape of green meadows and water. Here you can really experience the feeling of the Dutch polder.
After your polder experience, a tall Dutch guy (Teun) welcomes you to the Henri Willig farm. Dressed in his traditional Volendam garb, he explains the process of cheese making at the Jacobs Hoeve (the name of the farm) which is located less than twenty kilometres from Amsterdam. He can explain it in Spanish just as easily as in German or in English. It’s a fun and entertaining way to learn about cheese and you’ll be able to taste all the flavours you like.
The logo on the cheese is something you may have seen in the city, as Henri Willig has opened several different cheese stores in Amsterdam. But here at the Jacobs Hoeve you can find out about how it’s made and where it comes from and even see the actual cows that produce the milk.
Happy cows and happy workers
Though officially retired, Henri Willig is still very much invested in the company. He lives next to the cheese farm, and his son Wiebe lives above it. Willig: ‘I’ve always thought that it’s important to love what you do. You spend a lot of hours working in your life, so you better make it worthwhile. This was a dairy farm, but I wanted it to be more than that. I took some different courses on how to make cheese and went to buy a cheese-making machine. Those were the first steps of a forty-year adventure in cheese entrepreneurship. We had big ups and downs. For example, we had a fire in 1985 and everything burned down. The upside of that was that we had a lot of space to invent new things and could build again from scratch.’
‘I find it important to have fun in what I do. Likewise, I find it important that the people working here and also our suppliers enjoy what they do. A while back one of the milk supplier’s daughters organised a field trip for her school to our farm. It was really nice to see that someone so young was so enthusiastic about our farm. For a while we didn’t have animals on the farm anymore, but we decided the cows had to come back to the farm. We also get milk from other farms; they are all part of our cheese family.’
Milking robots and cows getting massaged
Though it’s a family company, it doesn’t shun new technology. The stable is very open, there are no boxes and a lot of natural light comes in. A straw machine puts fresh straw in the stable so the cows don’t stand in the dirt. There are even robots that clean the stable constantly. Everything is made as sustainable as possible, for example with a heat-recovery process and a rainwater collection basin on the roof. The cows get their drinking water from this basin.
But what stands out as the most advanced aspect of the farm is the milking robot. Cows can go into this robot to let themselves be milked. They wear a tag so the robot knows how to adjust the milking machine to the wishes of that particular cow. The cows literally choose their own times to be milked. They can even get a massage when they feel like it. The red machines in the stable are there to serve the cow’s needs and give them their massages. You might get a bit jealous of these cows. Willig: ‘I believe that happy cows produce good milk. We don’t sow our grasslands in every year and don’t take out the herbs, like a lot of farmers do. We think that it’s better to have a diverse grass landscape. Dandelions, for example, provide the cows with iron, calcium and other minerals. Plantain (goose grass) helps prevent udder inflammation. In this way, we don’t have to mess around with a lot of antibiotics. We want nature to run its course as much as possible. We believe we get the best milk and the best cheese this way. To me, having happy cows means good milk and beautiful cheeses.
In the same way, I believe in the people who work here. I want them to have fun in what they do and take pride in their work.’
And it sure looks like the workers are having fun. To start the new season and to celebrate the opening of the restaurant, there is a lunch organised for all the farm workers. The atmosphere is friendly and familial. Two young women are part of the farming crew. They take care of the cows, watch to see if they’re sick, and bring them outside at the right time. One of the young women says: ‘I haven’t checked if there are any new-borns today. There are about a hundred new young calves being born on the farm this year, so it’s quite exciting. We don’t really have to help them out in the process. The cows do most of the work themselves.’
Dutch polder landscape
And it must be nice to work outside like this. This is one of the few places around Amsterdam where you can actually see that the water is higher than the land itself. If you go to the stables and look back, you will see the water above you, which might be a strange sight to those not born and raised in the Netherlands. Inside the stables there is a lookout with binoculars to look at the different kinds of birds you will find here. Kids can learn some interesting facts about the cows and there are videos that tell more about the farm’s history, cheese making and the cows living on the farm.
After this charming farm-life experience, it’s nice to just sit and relax and have a drink or some food. Just this month Restaurant Jacob opened up, right there on the farm. It works with local suppliers like Jan van Asch. Taste specialties like hangop (cheese curd) or the slow-roasted beef made with local products. And just relax. Luckily, you can also bring the Henri Willig cheeses home with you on the plane or the bus and taste it all over again.