All Hail the Dutchess, Marieke Penterman


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THORP AND EAU CLAIRE, WISC. – In every marriage, they say, there is a cook, and there is a baker. The baker measures, annotates, and mise en places their way through every meal with painstaking precision; the cook does it from the heart and off the cuff, trusting that love will see them through. Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman of Marieke Gouda puts herself squarely in the second camp. “I’m a lucky cheesemaker, I like to say – I like to feel the curd,” she says. “It’s like being a musician who plays without reading the notes.” 

Follow the Netherlands-born Penterman through her Thorp, Wisc. cheese plant and she’ll chat with the cows, point out the pipe that takes the milk straight from the barn to the cheese vat, and get her (fully sanitized) hands right into the make process by handling the curd on its journey from milk to cheese. As she moves through the worksite, employees slow down to talk to her and check in; she slows down to talk to them in turn. Amid the hugs and easy laughter, I pick out an esprit de corps that I usually associate with a restaurant in its prime. People are working, yes, but they’re working together. In fact employee number one, Martha Herrera, is still working for Marieke after more than 15 years, and she’s a licensed cheesemaker. Herrera is one of three female licensed cheesemakers on site, a rare setup in a male-dominated field.


You might expect a cheesemaker with a “use the Force”-style approach to be crafting small batches of excellent but sometimes unpredictable product. In Penterman’s case, you’d be completely wrong. Penterman and her dairy farmer husband Rolf Penterman are empire builders. They’ve scaled their operation up from its 2006 roots as a modest farmstead shop with two employees to its current 50-employee scale: a large dairy farm, a farm/restaurant/cheese shop/agrotourism destination, and now a newly opened cheese and charcuterie shop in Eau Claire called House of Gouda

Production has ballooned from 30 wheels of cheese in year one to 36,000 wheels last year, with that amount set to triple in the next couple of seasons. But even that sort of increase leaves Penterman eager to push future boundaries: “We’re just a drop in the bucket in a country of 320 million people,” she says. “And if you compare [per capita cheese consumption] here to Europe, we still have a gap to fill. I’d like to fill it with Gouda.”


In an industry with a lot of big plants making reliable but workmanlike day-to-day cheese, and a lot of small plants making gourmet cheese in tiny batches, Penterman stands out. Marieke Gouda has won more than 200 awards in contests ranging from the local to some of the world’s most prestigious competitions, and the quality of her cheese is both consistent and self-evident to anyone who knows the stuff. 

The secret is both blindingly obvious and important to underline: If you talk to enough Wisconsin master cheesemakers (Penterman should be getting her master designation in 2025), you hear the same story over and over again about the key to great cheese. “It all starts with milk,” says Penterman. “If you can’t control your milk… people think, ‘oh, you can pasteurize it and it’ll be OK,’ and it might be, but no, it’s the milk.” 

Marieke Gouda is made from raw milk from farmstead cows housed in a vast, clean, open-sided barn, aged out (by law) past 60 days in order to test for and eliminate any danger of food-borne illness. And it’s the fresh milk of these cows that is key to the Gouda’s flavor.

It’s almost preposterously full-flavored and creamy, with a butter-like richness that is a perfect background palate for the delicate flavors that Penterman paints across the foreground of the cheese: caraway, cumin, Hatch pepper, fenugreek, horseradish, stinging nettle (which she’s nationally known for), onion and garlic and many others. The flavors look big on paper, but in the cheeses they’re reliably balanced and clean, bold but not overwhelming, and harnessed in tandem with the rich dairy intensity of the Gouda itself, and not at its expense. 

Penterman is monomaniacal about Gouda (“We want to be good in one thing and one thing only,” she says) but within that realm she’s constantly experimenting and expanding her stable of flavor combinations. Marieke Gouda recently rolled out a new form factor, as well, the cheese core – the remarkably tender inner section of a wheel that has been portioned out into equally weighted wedges. The tenderness of the core cheese is noteworthy as is the fact that it slices neatly into perfectly cracker-sized pieces.


Penterman’s approach – a strict adherence to a single classical style, with the massive asterisk of constant mix-in and format experimentation – represents a marriage between the intensely traditionalist European approach to artisan food and the constantly innovative American philosophy of food. Her immigrant background may make her perfectly poised to split the difference and borrow the best from both worlds, and it was, in fact, her skill with cheese that helped her obtain her green card in 2013. 

“The immigration lawyer in Minneapolis said: ‘Let’s apply for the Extraordinary Ability route,’ which normally only professors and athletes get…,” she recalls. “I’m the first cheesemaker to get her green card that way.”

Although Penterman got into her profession as somewhat of a lark (her first entrepreneurial exploit, childrens’ furniture, never really took off), she says she’s found a true home in the industry. “You feel appreciated as a farmer and a cheesemaker, and then the camaraderie of being a cheesemaker – there’s nothing like it,” she says. “Of course we have competitions, but we see the value of talking to each other. You can ask them anything, and they’ll give you the shirt off their back.”

Penterman’s optimism about her industry in general and her Gouda in particular helped pave the way for the newly opened House of Gouda shop in Eau Claire, Wisc. The store is focused on local food (although not to the exclusion of some European treats like Dutch licorice), and the selection feels like a massive charcuterie board spread across the shop’s walls and coolers. Anything you pick up, it seems, would go pretty well with just about anything else.

“There aren’t enough cheese stores,” says Penterman. “It comes back to those moments at the kitchen table, where you can sit and eat and talk. And it’s so important that we keep our food source in the United States. We don’t want to be dependent on overseas [food], and we have so many good things made here we can support.”

Marieke Gouda, 200 West Liberty Drive, Thorp, Wisc., 715.669.5230 7am-7pm DAILY
House of Gouda, 4008 Commonwealth Ave, Eau Claire, Wisc., 10am-7pm DAILY