The Dutch are known for being fond of their cheese. After all, every postcard from the Netherlands that doesn’t feature tulips seems to be of a piece of cheese. In fact, the Dutch are such famous cheese-eaters that they are known abroad as ‘cheese-heads’.
In days past, calling a Dutchman a ‘cheese-head’ was a grievous insult. Today though, the term is somewhat milder: it has (mostly) lost its pejorative meaning and Dutchmen now accept the term ‘cheese-head’ with good humoured tolerance. Many have even subverted it to become a self-deprecating, yet proud way of speaking about themselves their countrymen.
The importance of cheese
Its hard not to see how important cheese is to the Dutch way of life. You only need to take a look at the phenomenally high consumption of cheese in the country — on average, about 15 kg of cheese per person each year — to see how highly it is prized. Some scientists say all this cheese eating accounts for the high average height of the Dutch; almost everyone says it accounts for the wide average girth of the Dutch.
Then there is the hugely profitable cheese export, which may be the reason for all the ‘cheese-head’ mutterings abroad. The Netherlands produces over 630,000 tons of cheese, and almost 500,000 tons of it are shipped out to the United States and the rest of the world, to earn the title of World’s Biggest Cheese Exporter.
The few pieces of cheese left over from this lucrative export can be seen in the cheese shops that seem to pop up on every street of the city, and a visit to the Netherlands isn’t complete without a trip to the nearby cheese shop (pictured above). Walking into one of these establishments is almost enough to make a man moo, there’s so much dairy around. The pungent scent of cheese is almost overwhelming, as are the choices available. The Dutch don’t have as much variety of cheeses as the French do, but when you’re standing for ages in a cheese shop trying to pick something to go on your sandwich, this isn’t going to be an issue.
One of the most easily recognizable cheeses is Edam, which in the Netherlands is covered in yellow wax (the more familiar red waxed versions are only for export). Strangely enough, Edam isn’t eaten that often in the Netherlands, and its probably easier to find outside the country than in it. Still, there’s plenty of other choices. The other really popular cheese is Gouda, which makes up about 50% of the country’s cheese production.
Like wine, all cheeses comes in three flavours depending on maturity (cheese ages, much like wine). Semi-solid jong kaas is matured for only three weeks and is mild in flavour. The slightly harder Belegen kaas ripens in two to seven months and is rather sharper in taste, while Oud or old cheese is ripened over at least twelve months, is very strong flavoured and has a grainy, flaky texture. Lieden cheese is the third most produced cheese, which carries on the European tradition of adding seeds or other flavouring to cheese, in this case cumin seeds.
There are plenty of other flavoured cheeses, ranging from mustard seeds to stinging nettles (a European favourite which makes many American blanch). Then there is the Dutch custom of dripping mustard on any cheese they eat, a habit that baffles many other cheese-eating nations.
Visiting the cheese farms
If you’re really not sure and want a bit of a taste test, you can always ask for a sample, and if you’re lucky, the shop may have an attractive Dutch girl dressed in traditional costume ready to help you choose the right cheese to go with whatever meal you’re planning. Once you’ve made you’re choice, you can then ask for anything from a small slab to the entire wheel. Most cheese shops sell bread as well as cheese, and if you cant be bothered to do it yourself, then many shops can make a great sandwich as well. Most Dutch eat their cheese with sandwiches (broodjes) or crackers, so you’ll be in good company. Pick up some fresh yogurt or quark (sour cream) to go with the sandwich and you’ll have an authentic Dutch meal, or at least a snack.
Most of the cheeses you find in the shops are commercially produced. If you want a more intimate experience of cheese, you can head for some of the creameries themselves, which are happy to provide a tour of their facilities to show off the cheese-making process, as well as offering a sample of their wares. For the connoisseurs of the golden wheel, there is no finer, more exquisitely flavoured cheese than the boerenkaas, the hand-made farmer’s cheese now rarely found, even in the Netherlands.
These cheeses are products of true craft skills, made by hand and often the product of a single family that has been making that particular cheese for generations. They are the continuation of an incredibly long dairy tradition: archaeologists have found pre-Christian sites in Friesland that still hold the remains of cheese-making equipment. Some of the farms welcome visitors too, so you can always contact the Dairy Bureau for a list of farms and creameries open to curious cheese-lovers. On the way to the farms, you even stop for a few pictures of the ultimate source of the cheese: the land, famously flat as a pancake, perfect for grassy meadows and the herds of contentedly grazing cows.
Reenactment of a cheese auction
If you want a slightly more superficial (but nevertheless entertaining) experience, you can join the bus loads of visitors headed towards Alkmaar (pictured right). On Friday mornings in the summer, Alkmaar holds its celebrated cheese market. The entire event has a festival-like air about it, and its best to get there before 9 am to secure a good spot to watch the proceedings — you’ll be glad you did once you see the crowds the event always attracts.
At the cheese market, you’ll see piles of cheese stacked high in the cobble-stoned square in front of the of the Weigh House. Around these golden piles dart white-uniformed carriers from the proud porter’s guild (400 years old and still going strong), who toss the cheese around and lug it from one place to another on slings hanging from their shoulders. At their heaviest, the slings will have 80 big wheels of cheese weighing some 350 lbs — that’s a lot of cheese!
Of course, the Alkmaar market is a bit more tourist-oriented, but to see a real cheese market in action, you can go to Gouda (home of the famous cheese), where you can see the famous and mystifying Dutch way of trading cheese: by handclapping. The buyer and seller clap to bid the price up or down and a good solid hand clap seals the deal. Its an entertaining sight for visitors, many of whom wonder what’s wrong with simple speech. In any event, once all the hand clapping is done, the porters go to work moving the cheese wheels around like their comrades do in Alkmaar, and you can finish off your visit with a stop at the most appropriate place — the nearby cheese shop.