Cheesemaker Anton Witte and his wife Janine live and work on Texel, an island off the coast of the Netherlands. Cheese from raw sheep milks has been made for more than 500 years on this island. The Dutch Wadden Islands, to which Texel belongs, lie between the North Sea and the murky waters of the Wadden Sea. This is an intertidal zone, meaning that large parts of the sea floor will be above water at low tide and under water at high tide. It makes for a unique ecosystem of stunning natural beauty. Nowadays flocked by tourists, the islands were quite remote up until the second half of the 20th century. With better connections the island became a popular holiday destination for sunbathers and nature lovers and the old ways of living started to disappear.
Anton Witte has been a traditional successful cheesemaker for almost thirty years. He is trying hard to preserve the cultural heritage with his raw milk sheep cheese and very special Orekéés: with added sea lavender, a typical coastal plant with lovely saline taste.
“In 1981, I was 22 and just starting out as a farmer and cheesemaker. I started with cows, and even today, I do not have sheep of my own. Everyone should do what he does best, and for me it is cheesemaking and tending to cows. The sheep milk is purchased from two local sheep farming families. They let their sheep graze on the old pastures nearby and milk them. We transport the milk to our farm, where we alternate every day making sheep and cow cheese.”
“Eight years ago my son and I went to Cheese in Bra for the first time. That was a great experience that offered a lot of exposure. More than I could handle, really. The problem is that you are in the business of making fresh produce, which makes it difficult to be flexible when demand increases suddenly. But the exposure at Cheese has been incredibly valuable for the strengthening of the brand Texelse Schapenkaas and Orekéés. It has become a well known locally produced delicacy that gets recognition of which the people of Texel can be proud. And that is very important, because the inhabitants of Texel are good people, but they sometimes seem to forget that sheep and sheep cheese are an intrinsic part of our culture.”
“In the old days, agriculture was difficult here since the soil is poor farmland: too sandy. Water and valuable nutrients wash away easily, so for centuries Texel was a real sheep island. The milk was used to produce a hard cheese that can be easily preserved for some time. Because of its shelf life properties, it could be transported and sold in the merchant cities of the Hanseatic League where it was regarded as a quality product.
In the 1830's, production exceeded 60,000 kg a year, pretty respectable in those days. It really meant a great deal for the island economy. But three decades thereafter production dropped. Farmers started to change to cows, which are much more easily milked and produce more. They also produce more dung that can be used to enrich the soil. Sheep cheese production never recovered. Only in the Second World War production rose steeply, because of shortages elsewhere. But after the war production declined and it was feared that the tradition would be lost forever.
But I am confident that the future will hold good things. When we started to produce raw milk sheep cheese, we mainly sold to tourists. Nowadays our product has been recognized and awarded several times as a local delicacy and it gets sold in more places and fancy restaurants in the Netherlands.
Forming the Presidium and attending Cheese have helped a lot in that respect. This year, unfortunately, I cannot come to Cheese, even though I want to. Too much work! But my two children and our salesman Ruud will go to Bra and present the "Echte Texelse Schapenkaas"(the real Texel Sheep cheese) , Orekéés and our "Very special old Sheep Cheese" (2 and 3years old) on the stand of Lindenhoff / Wezenspyk (Stand 14 Presidi Internazionali) at Cheese.