Queijo do Campo

Happy cows, happy cheese

How seeing things from a different point of view can change everything

A dairy farmer’s lot is generally not a happy one. Portuguese dairy farmers are forever bemoaning the low prices paid for their milk; the fact that their lives are a ‘misery’ – more often than not, they say they are ready to pack it all in and sell their cattle.

Not so Frans Ampt who arrived in a carefully selected corner of the Alentejo 16 years ago and has set about creating a very different kind of dairy farm – one where no one seems to be grumbling, and where the cows have year-round pasture … and a sea view!

We arrived at Herdade dos Nascedios (Odemira) to find out about their cheese, Queijo do Campo – actually a variety of cheeses that have been slowly perfected since Frans and partner Martine branched out from simply producing milk 10 years ago.

Queijo do Campo

Yes, he will say it was a way of adding to the farm’s income. The milk marketing board is not interested in a niche market of grass-fed cow’s milk, so cheese seemed a good second option.

And this is where the way of looking at things takes a sharp curve from the Portuguese norm. There are very few State-led incentives for dairy farmers, agrees Frans, but there is also very little interference – and that has to be seen as a plus. Thus, the couple began making cheese, in buckets, in their caravan; there was no one with a clipboard, tutting-tutting and saying it wasn’t sanitary.

Even 10 years ago, the couple was still in a mobile home on the land. As Frans explains, a dairy farm doesn’t need a lot of investment to start with: as long as one has the cows, the pasture and a milking machine. Sheds and the cheese-making factory all came later.

But back to the early attempts at making cheese. 2013 saw the long road of applying for licences, creating a project, and so on. It took seven years for all this to come through before Queijo do Campo was born.

And within two years, Queijo do Campo had won its first national prize.

Queijo do Campo

While dairy farmers nationally were warning about ‘food sovereignty at risk’ due to the drought and the war in Ukraine, Frans, Martine and their newly-hired ‘cheesemaker’ Joyce had their heads down working.

This is where the specially selected corner of the Alentejo needs to be better explained. Herdade dos Nascedios sits in a “microclimate where temperatures never go above 30ºC” – even when the rest of the country is sweltering. As a result, maintaining pasture has not been a problem, even through the drought. The cows never have to be kept in barns, or fed animal feed – and the resulting milk and cheese are … well, deliciously pure and simple.

Back in their native Holland, Frans and Martine could not expect to make cheese all year long. In the Alentejo, it’s more than feasible; in fact, they make 30kgs of cheese twice a week.

Queijo do Campo

And this isn’t just ‘any old cheese’ – it is made with raw milk, water from their own dam, specially selected herbs and, as such, is “soft, creamy and healthy” (as the website explains).

These days, there are a number of varieties beyond the initial ‘Portuguese Gouda’. And there are the long-matured cheeses – “the sort you would enjoy with a glass of wine,” says Joyce – one of which won that 2022 national prize.

Plans now are to expand markets. The cheeses already have a healthy online demand; Joyce is taking them to various farmers’ markets – and even the Apolónia supermarket chain has started stocking one of the Queijo do Campo varieties.

Meantime, Frans is still thinking of new ideas. His 350-odd Jersey/Friesian cows are providing the milk/cheese, but he has also branched out into Aberdeen Angus, the idea being to make a very different kind of sausage, a kind of beef ‘linguiça’.

Portuguese people “will say it cannot be done; linguiça has to be with pork”, but he thinks not only that it can be done, but that there will be a market for it.

Queijo do Campo

The hunt, therefore, is on for “a good company that could make the sausages”.

At a time when farmers are invariably presented as ‘up in arms’ and ‘furious with the government’, it’s refreshing to see that it doesn’t have to be like that. There are always ways to innovate and stay in the game – and if the results are delicious, even better!

Cheese-making keeps you fit

Talked through the various steps of making cheese, we learnt that cheese-making is not for the faint-hearted. It’s a massively demanding process involving a great deal of effort man-handling the 10kg cheeses within and out of their vat when the time comes.

Joyce’s job begins at 5.30 in the morning on cheese-making days; taking all of six hours to go from the warm first milk of the morning to the churned cheese that then has to sit for four days in a vat of brine.

Queijo do Campo

The new cheeses then have to be carefully dried and stored, being turned every few days on shelves with just the right temperature-control to keep correct levels of moisture in the air.

Depending on the variety of cheese, the time of maturing can go from four weeks (the minimum) to over two years.

And judging by comments on Queijo do Campo’s website (in Portuguese, Dutch and English), the results are 5-star.

See Queijo do Campo’s website for the varieties of raw-milk Gouda Farmer’s Cheese from Portuguese soil, and ways to order/collect (if you live nearby).

By Natasha Donn
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