The tranquil Dutch countryside beckons
A NOBLE spirit still blows across the peat bogs topped with heather and the pine forests in the heart of the Netherlands.
A few years ago, Octaaf and Virginie van Voorst tot Voorst, a charming couple of noble descent, gave up their urban lives to move into a thatched country home in their ancestral land. Descended from commoners whose castle was destroyed by rivals in 1362, they offer guests a modest but idyllic accommodation in the one-room Bed & Breakfast Landgoed Klein Giethmen adjoining the home, plus unique conversational opportunities to gain appreciation of the history of this small but mighty nation.
Their country home just outside the village of Vilsteren in verdant Overijssel province is filled with reminders of their family's rich heritage, including several depictions of ancestors. Among these is a dining plate showing a knight in full-plate armour centuries ago and a painting of Mrs van Voorst tot Voorst's father in military uniform from the turn of the 20th century.
Guests will find themselves enjoying the warmth of a fire from a wood-burning stove, admiring Delftware and more Dutch art and chatting with the hospitable couple, whose three sons moved out long ago. They also serve a hearty breakfast featuring boiled eggs, homemade bread with tasty local toppings like chocolate sprinkles, appelstroop, pindakaas and a full-flavoured cheese sourced from a neighbour's farm.
The upcountry vibes flow along a dirt path that runs alongside a pine forest and peat moss bogs sprouting heather that turns lavender in late summer. Also calling the farm home are numerous chickens and turkeys, two cats and a dog. And right outside the B&B guestroom window, Mrs van Voorst tot Voorst's two white horses roam a spacious field.
It is a short bicycle ride from the B&B to the local kaasmakers (cheese makers), Marinus Post and his partner, painter Joke van de Crommert. Cultures of another kind, however, occupy the primary energies of the couple, who make delicious raw-milk cheese at their Heileuver farm.
"When you pasteurise, much of the flavour is lost," says Mr Post. Indeed, the traditional-cum-unconventional approach works quite well, as the taste of their extensive array of massive cheese wheels is simply phenomenal.
A lifelong farmer, Mr Post says that he turned to cheese-making since it requires teamwork. "I was lonely tending the fields, where I had only the cows to talk to," he says while explaining how the facilities have attracted serious cheese makers from the likes of Russia, Tibet, Brazil, Japan and many European countries, to learn world-famous Dutch dairy techniques.
The farm specialises in producing Gouda cheese, the fattier of the country's two major cheeses (the other being Edam). Visitors are welcome to watch the intriguing process.
The impressively high-tech laboratory-style setting for the cheese-making contrasts with the homeliness of the shop, which in addition to the wheels of cheese, offers other organically sourced produce such as nuts, honey, oatmeal, olive oil and fresh fruit.
"When making cheese, I get many ideas for painting. Two days a week, I make and sell cheese, and two days a week, I paint. Cheese-making is like painting, but with a bit of science," Ms van de Crommert quips.
"When you do something with real passion and put all your energy and mind into it, whether food, art, writing or music, the result will be good."
Just as unpasteurised as the farm's cheese is the raw energy of miller Anton Wolters, who single-handedly mans the complex mechanisms of his Molen de Lelie windmill in the charming town of Ommen, a five-minute drive from the B&B.
While the miller rattles off pancake recipes ideal for his super-fine flour with the nuance of a seasoned chef, he explains in a raspy voice and with broad, sweeping gestures of his hand, how mastering the complexities of steering the massive wheel is akin to a captain's commanding a sailboat on rough seas.
On a recent Saturday, particularly strong winds whipping in from the North Sea provided enough energy to turn the creaky wooden cogwheels and lava-stone millstones sufficiently to fill 400 sacks of flours, sought after by fine local restaurants and sold in the Molen de Lelie grocery store on the ground floor.
When not in operation, the sails are secured to the deck with chains and anchors. Another key task for Mr Wolters is maintaining the curved grooves of the millstones with hand tools. "Sometimes, a millstone cries like a child," he explains, "and you have to listen carefully to find the reason why."
Much more than quaint symbols of national culture, windmills not only milled the grains that fed Dutch society, but also allowed for speedier sawing of wood that helped the country produce enough ships for Dutch sea captains to outpace European rivals in the Golden Age in the 1600s.
Even before the development of the gabled canal-side town homes, grand mediaeval towers, churches and castles embodied the nation's spirit.
While Kasteel Voorst lives on only in memory, the castle of another powerful noble family, also stormed and destroyed by rivals in the late 1300s, was rebuilt in 1715 and offers glimpses into an earlier age.
Today, the double-moated estate is home to the International School Eerde. But even when viewed from outside the gate, the moats, turrets, central castle and other classical Dutch buildings, surrounded by tree-lined lanes and expansive countryside, provide a powerful sense of local history.
Indeed, the low-lying nation's soul in many ways remains firmly rooted in the splendour of its stunningly productive countryside.
A pristine environment particularly well worth exploring is the Lemelerberg, a beautiful hill topped with just a few trees that stand out for their splendid isolation. "It's too small to call a mountain, but we call it a mountain," says Mrs van Voorst tot Voorst's son, Cuno.
Topping out well under 100m, it is not Everest. But the enchanting trail leading up to it is thick with soaring evergreen that gives way to an expanse of more heather-topped peat bog, creating a sense of something timeless.
THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK
For more reports on the go, check out the “MyPaper” iOS and Android apps.