Cheese is a big deal here in the Netherlands. Where else in the world can you find shops devoted entirely to this dairy delight? It doesn’t matter if it is breakfast, lunch, or dinner- cheese almost always makes an appearance somewhere during a typical Dutch meal. The Netherlands is also one of the biggest exporters of cheese, with Gouda (the true Dutch pronunciation is how-da, not goo-da like we tend to say in English) and Edam cheeses recognized the world over.
In four towns in the Netherlands, this long-standing obsession with cheese translates into major tourist dollars. These towns–Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, and Hoorn–all hold traditional cheese markets (kaasmarkt) in the summer months in order to teach visitors about the history of the industry in the Netherlands. Out of these four towns, Alkmaar is the undisputed mother of all cheese markets.
Every Friday morning, starting on the first Friday in April and ending on the first Friday in September, visitors flock to Alkmaar’s Waagplein (weighing square) for the market. Anyone wanting a decent view should ensure they arrive long before the bell rings at 10:00am signalling the start of the market, because it gets very crowded. And Dutch people are tall, so unless you play professional basketball you are going to want to be as close to the front as possible to make sure you can see.
Once the bell rings, a flurry of activity begins on the square. Members of the historic Alkmaar cheese carrier’s guild (who are the only ones allowed to move and weigh the cheese at the market) rush around carrying eight cheese wheels at a time on wooden racks hung across their shoulders.
In the meantime, sellers and buyers haggle over and eventually agree on a price for the cheese through a system called handjeklap (“hand clap”). The system involves both parties literally clapping hands together in a specific fashion to signal how much they are willing to pay/accept.
After a price is agreed, the cheese carriers bring the cheese over to the weighing station. Back in 1365, when the first cheese was traded on the Waagplein in Alkmaar, the city only owned one scale. Now three scales, each larger than a grown human being, are used at the market!
The cheese carriers have to be incredibly strong to shuttle the heavy cheese wheels back and forth across the square. Each wheel of cheese weighs over 13 kilos (29 lbs.)! Carrying a full load of cheese wheels on the wooden barrows means having to lift over 130 kilos (287 lbs.). Now think about the fact that there are approximately 2,200 wheels of cheese displayed on each market day- an incredible 30,000 kilos (66,000 lbs.) of dairy. Those guys deserve a reward!
Most of the market is purely a “spectator sport” with no active participation by the audience. However, one fascinating aspect of the cheese market that I got to partake in was the tasting of the cheese. The price of the cheese at the market is largely determined by the quality of its appearance and taste. Trained inspectors use specially designed cheese scoops to bore cylinders of cheese out of the wheel in order to test the quality of the cheese before it is bought. One of the inspectors came around with a wheel of cheese and broke off pieces of the fresh cheese for the crowd to taste. My verdict on the product: that was some tasty stuff!
Although the market provides commentary through a microphone for the crowd lining the square, do not expect to get much information out of it unless you speak Dutch. The commentator translated the proceedings into English, German, and Spanish for the benefit of the mostly-foreign audience, but I know enough Dutch by now to realize that the translations were terrible. Anyone visiting the market would get much more out of the experience by reading up on the market traditions and procedure before they arrive. A great resource for this is the Alkmaar tourism website (VVV).
Even if you get tired of the crowds at the cheese market (as I quickly did), there is still plenty to keep you occupied in Alkmaar for a few hours. The medieval center of the town is very picturesque, and the Waagplein is surrounded by market stalls where Dutch handicrafts of all kinds are sold. If you’re looking for a place to buy nicer souvenirs than the typical t-shirt and keychain-fare that line the streets of Amsterdam, Alkmaar is a great place to do it.
And, if you just can’t deal with the complete overload of cute, traditional Dutch things, then you can always head over to the museum dedicated to the Beatles (the band, not the insect). Apparently John Lennon’s first guitar was made in Alkmaar. Who would’ve thought?