Tobias Rijnsdorp walks barefoot around the finca. With the vast Andean landscape behind him, he sits on the stump of a log, his eyes, unlike the tourist in mine, unaffected by the need to look over his shoulder and admire the scenery. Just four years ago, the 30-year-old social entrepreneur had a stable job in the Netherlands. Today, he runs the artisanal cheese company HolaAndes in the heart of the Bogotá savannah. As the Spaniard comes out of his tongue and his feet welcome the soft, springy earth of the mountains, I wonder how a Dutchman with no prior knowledge of cheese found himself so comfortable in the center of a project propelling rural development?
Back in his hometown of Gouda, after studying tropical agriculture in Cali, an encounter with the famous traditions of the city sparked the idea of one day opening a cheese factory in Colombia. When he learned that the Colega dairy cooperative, based in Monquentiva, a rural commune near Guatavita, was looking for partnerships, Tobias struck up a conversation from a distance. Obtaining funding from the Dutch government, his proposal was accepted by the cooperative, starting its journey to bring genuine production of Gouda cheese to dairy farmers in Cundinamarca.
Standing in the production room among tools and machines, rows of waxy yellow Goudas ripen on shelves that line the floor and ceiling, nearly four years later, business is booming. With his cheeses sold in restaurants and delicatessens in Bogotá, Medellín and Cali, Tobias produces an average of 300 kilos of Gouda per month, based on an 1847 recipe learned from a neighboring family in Holland. In five key steps, he describes a very specific process where the milk is churned into curds and whey in a giant cylindrical machine, then pressed, submerged in a salt bath, before receiving its famous wax coating. The cheese is then matured for between four and six weeks.
Cut a piece to try, the creamy-sweet nutty taste is irresistibly authentic. Although Colombian milk has a high bacterial density (which means Tobias is unable to make raw Gouda milk here), he assures me that the high fat and protein content, combined with the cows grazing whole year here, produces a very original taste as good as any on the other side of the Atlantic.
At the heart of the Gouda production technique, milk is also essential for the long-term development of the local community. As one of the hundreds of farming villages that were affected by the internal conflict, until a decade ago, Monquentiva also survived without electricity and the food grown had to be consumed locally as the overland trade was precarious given the activity of the guerrillas.
The dairy cooperative has helped the village by connecting small farmers to national markets through milk giant Colanta. With 50 farmers affiliated with Colega, their milk is brought on horseback each morning where it is pasteurized and prepared for the market. Children in the area are also given the task of raising a calf as a way to teach farming skills and responsibilities.
This common theme is at the heart of Tobias’ ethics and operations. Employing four local women, he trained each of them in the very specific production process of Gouda, one of them also being mentored to oversee the entire cycle.
His future goal, which he hopes to include training exchanges for his staff in Holland and building community-based guesthouses for local tourism, is to empower the production team, propelling his vision of cheese as not only the next step in the advancement of the rural community, but basically as a way of attracting its youth to reinvest and ultimately to stay in the area.
A cause he doesn’t need persuasion on, although little touches at Colega’s remind him of home (yellow clogs adorning the door and the hanging photograph of former Queen Beatrix and Prince Consort, Claus of the Pays- Bas), or the clever pun of his brand – HolaAndes – Tobias Rijnsdorp started with a “Hello to the Andes” and in just three years, found a place to settle there.