The Netherlands is just over half the size of Scotland. A small country with big ambitions and world-famous icons such as Sinterklaas, Queens day, Delft Blue earthenware, mills, bicycles and of course, cheese and clogs. Clara Maria is one of the included experiences on Expat Explore tours that travel to Amsterdam. Located in Amstelveen, south-west of Amsterdam, Clara Maria is known to be one of the outstanding cheese farms in the region.
This family-run farm gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how Dutch cheese and clogs are made. The owners, Kees-Jan and Katrina van Wees, personally welcome all visitors when they arrive on the farm, and make it their business to teach people from all over the world about these interesting Dutch traditions. Katrina, originally from the USA, was once just a tourist visiting the farm but today she is married to Kees-Jan. Read on for more on their fascinating story and the clog and cheese-making experiences they offer at Clara Maria…
The farm is over 160 years old! Where did Clara Maria start?
The Clara Maria story started more than 40 years ago. Kees-Jan’s father, Bart, was born on the farm and inherited the farm as a young adult. Kitty, Kees-Jan’s mother, was a business-minded, hard-working farm woman, who saw the potential of Clara Maria’s charm and location. Kitty began by opening up a Bed & Breakfast in her historic farmhouse and inviting tour groups to visit the Clara Maria Cheese Farm. The idea was to give tourists the opportunity to see how traditional Dutch cheese is made. In the 1970s and 1980s, Kitty travelled all over Europe promoting their farm at every travel fair she could get to, while also raising four children and running a business. Bart was, of course, also intrinsically involved as he took over the cheese-making and subsequent demonstrations. By this time, Kees-Jan was ten years old and able to milk the cows on his own.
Over the years, three of the four children were actively involved with their parents in building the Clara Maria Cheese Farm into a thriving business. As the “next generation,” Kees-Jan and Katrina took over the Clara Maria in December 2003.
Katrina, you are from the United States! How did you end up in Holland making cheese?
I was a tourist, on a week’s vacation, staying at the Clara Maria Bed & Breakfast. I met Kees-Jan’s mother, and she invited me to have coffee with her. I also met her chirpy son on his red tractor as we were feeding the animals. It did not take them long to give me a blue overall and put me to work cleaning cow udders! Following a couple more visits to the farm, many letters and phone calls, Kees-Jan visited the children and I in the States. A few months after his Stateside visit, the children and I moved to Amstelveen to start a new life of farming, cheese making, and entertaining tourists in Holland. Wow! People always ask me this question, especially from my fellow Americans! They are so supportive of me and it is truly heart-warming.
You love cheese and are cheese making experts. Do you ever taste cheese when you travel?
Always, in any country we visit, you will find us tasting cheese, going to cheese farms, touring cheese museums… admittedly, we’re cheese junkies. For Kees-Jan, cheese making is a way of life. He lives and breathes this farm. Over the years, all our children were actively involved in building the Clara Maria Cheese Farm into a thriving business. I am a people person, so explaining cheese making, telling people about the Dutch culture or the history of this farm are fun things for me to do. The children help out wherever they can; from milking the cows when Kees-Jan needs an extra hand, to running the cash registers on a busy weekend, or getting up with me at O-dark-thirty to prepare for a breakfast group that will arrive with 60 guests at 7 a.m. We are very thankful for all of our children’s support in each of their various roles.
How many types of cheeses do you sell and which flavour is the most popular?
Clara Maria Cheese Farm specialises in producing original Gouda cheese, Holland’s most loved cheese. It was named after the city of Gouda in the Netherlands. We sell about 12 varieties now, all based on Gouda cheese. Kees-Jan made a special cheese with Mexican chillies because I love Tex-Mex food so much. It’s called Farmer’s Flame and I’m proud to say it’s the favourite among our visitors. Must be the American influence!
You are the cheese demonstrator at Clara Maria. Where did you learn how to make Dutch cheese?
First, I needed to be able to speak, read, and write Dutch in order to take the nationally certified course in Dutch cheese making. So, once I had my head around the language, I went to cheese school to learn the science of the process and did an internship to learn the particulars. It was important for me to support Kees-Jan’s role on the farm. Dutch cheese production is such an old and respected tradition in Holland. I had to understand and respect what Dutch dairy farmers had been successfully making for hundreds of years.
You are very focused on sustainable and organic farming. Tell us more about your approach.
Indeed, we only use milk from our own cows. In this way, we can completely control the quality of the milk. We know precisely what the cows are eating, and can be certain there are no steroids or antibiotics in the milk. In today’s culture of food interest and knowledge, we receive more questions during our tours about cows and milk. We both enjoy answering these questions because we are very proud of our cheese and how close to nature it is!
Our cows can graze outside in the pastures for a good part of the year, usually late March/early April through mid-November, depending on the rainy season. When springtime comes, they literally spring in the air as they run outside to graze in the fresh green grass. It is a beautiful sight! We are involved in a national bird protection program that provides a safe habitat for specific birds to lay eggs in our pastures, literally on the grass. We mark the sites of the nests, then mow the grass at a later date for haymaking. We do not use certain fertilisers or weed inhibitors, which could be harmful to the animals and the habitat they live in.
Kees-Jan, you wear clogs every day?
Come rain or sunshine! I’ve been making clogs for over 30 years now, and I love the fact that they’re part of my heritage. Some 20 years ago, our family noticed a growing need for tourists to learn more about authentic clog making in the Netherlands. At a young age, I learned how to use authentic clog making machines from German origin. I like being creative and working with my hands. I spend a lot of time with the old clog machines to see what I can create. We make about 5000 pairs a year and sell all kinds of useful ‘clogs’ like bottle openers, key rings, and potted plants. The clogs remain an important part of our heritage that we will always appreciate.
It’s obvious that you are very passionate about clogs (‘klompen’ in Dutch) and the history thereof?
Clog making dates back to the middle ages, around the 1100s. Like Delftware, Wooden shoes originated in China. A few hundred years ago, a good part of Europe was wearing wooden shoes, including the French, Germans and Swedes. Only the Dutch preserved the tradition of wearing clogs up until 20 – 30 years ago.
Today, not many people wear clogs, normally just the farmers and construction workers as safety footwear. One of the traditions for the clog maker was to carve a special pair of clogs for the woman he wanted to marry. He would then place the “wedding clogs” in front of the door of her house. If she wore them, she had accepted his proposal, but if not, she had rejected him. Talk about putting yourself out on the line in front of the whole village!
Katrina, you personalise clogs for customers by using wood soldering?
I love branding the clogs with special messages for loved ones, they can be so dear! I get all kinds of requests, from University mascots and logos to names to be written in Mandarin and other interesting languages. To be honest, with some of the languages, I have given up! But it’s a lot of fun.
What’s the best part of working on a cheese and clog making farm?
Both of us enjoy the adventure of it and meeting people from various cultures. We hope that people may always feel at home here and enjoy learning about the traditions of the Dutch culture.
Clara Maria is a free included experience on most tours that stop in Amsterdam. If you are departing on one of our tours and Amsterdam is on the itinerary, get ready for a true Dutch experience like no other! To know before you go: