Well here we are, already into December. Time to start putting up the Christmas tree, hanging up the lights, and buying gifts for loved ones. You know what makes a really nice gift? Cheese.
On our most recent visit to Amsterdam, we decided to get out of the city and visit a new town. Luckily I had done some research beforehand, so I knew exactly where I wanted to go.
“What’s there?” Mark asked as we started to plan our day trip.
“Oh, they have historic buildings, cobblestone-lined streets, and a few museums,” I replied vaguely. Which basically described every village, town and city in Europe.
“Ugh,” he sighed. We were at the tail-end of our trip, and frankly, we were museumed-out. And my description clearly wasn’t selling it. But I didn’t want to admit why I really wanted to go, either. Still, Mark was unconvinced that this little town would offer anything unique or interesting, so I finally fessed up to the truth.
Every Friday, Alkmaar has a cheese market. And it just so *happened* to be a Friday. www.kaasmarkt.nl/
Even with this new information revealed, Mark remained skeptical that Alkmaar was going to be anything other than another quaint but indistinct town. But, accommodating husband that he is, he wisely decided to indulge my cheese obsession, albeit with a sigh and a shake of his head.
When we arrived at the Alkmaar train station, we weren’t quite sure which direction to head, but we saw a few people walking purposefully in the same direction, so we decided to follow and see if we were all going to the same party. As we walked, more people joined in, so by the time we arrived near the old town square there were a few dozen of us. Like a sparse, fast-moving zombie hoard, motivated by the promise of cheese instead of brains.
We turned a street corner and were struck by what draws people here once a week – hundreds of bright orange cheese wheels stacked neatly in front of the old weigh house building. It’s not just an economic process, it’s an entire event. There was a little farmer’s market with people selling various bric-a-brac, as well as food kiosks. We got here early in the morning so we stopped at a poffertjes stall for breakfast. Poffertjes are like mini bite-sized pancake puffs, dusted with powdered sugar and love. You can even add a drizzle of chocolate syrup or Bailey’s if you need an early morning pick-me-up.
Once we inhaled our doughy, sugar-drenched snacks, we squeezed ourselves into the throng of spectators to watch the magic of the cheese market unfold.
Background: Alkmaar was granted weighing rights, and a cheese scale, in 1365, but it’s not entirely clear how far back the cheese market goes. However, according to records, the cheese bearers’ guild was in existence as far back as 1593. The cheese market has remained at the same location, on the Waagplein, in front of the weigh house all this time. The square has been enlarged over eight times over the centuries to accommodate the cheeses, and their drooling admirers.
The market has a very structured and time-honoured procedure. Trucks (well, probably wagons in the early days) and boats filled with cheese from local factories arrive at the Waagplein. Cheese setters (“kaaszetters”) start the process of “putting up the cheeses,” or stacking them, beginning as early as 7am so that everything is ready for display by 9:30. When the market opens at 10am, the samplers and traders do their thing, including thumping on the cheese wheels, smelling and tasting samples, and crumbling it between their fingers to judge the texture.
Even the number of air bubbles becomes an important factor in judging cheese quality. Perfect cheeses have evenly-spaced air bubbles throughout. Cheese without air bubbles, or “eyes,” are referred to as blind cheeses, and are considered inferior.
Yeah, I’d still eat it. Actually I prefer it when my food can’t look back at me anyway.
The cheese carriers’ role is pretty self explanatory. The men in the cheese carriers’ guild all receive nicknames and are expected to conduct themselves in a certain manner, including paying fines if they show up late. Smoking, drinking and cursing are forbidden. The Cheese Father is the head of the four forwarding companies (identifiable by the red, green, blue or yellow hats, bowties and barrows) that make up the guild. I love the names of these jobs by the way. The cheese setters, the cheese carriers, and the Cheese Father. Do you think he wears a big gawdy ring like in the Godfather? But instead of gold, it’s a little gouda wheel? Would people have to kiss it, or take a nibble out of it to prove their loyalty? The lactose intolerant would be weeded out pretty quickly.
Price bargaining is conducted by the clapping of hands and shouting prices. Once a deal is made the cheese is carted off to the weigh house for weighing. The cheese carriers then haul the cheese on special wooden barrows to the awaiting trucks for transport. The entire square must be emptied of the cheese by 12:30 so that the restaurants and cafes can put their tables and chairs back out on the square. It’s fast, furious, and efficient.
I also can’t leave out the Cheese Maidens, who are dressed in traditional garb and walk around selling grab bags of cheese and cheese-related products to the crowd.
The grab bags were offered in two prices, 10 Euros and 15 Euros. Mark caught me watching people buy the grab bags with longing in my eyes, so he offered, “should we buy a bag and see what’s inside?” Well, ok, if you insist. We flagged her over and made the deal for a 10 euro bag. The initial excitement of the market waning, we moved to a quiet area to see what treasures we had just purchased.
The bag contained a plastic Beemster-logo bowl and four really generous wedges of gouda, weighing between .205 and .315kg each. Considering that one wedge of that size would normally run $15-20 or more back home, this was an amazing deal.
And then, almost as quickly, buyers’ remorse set in. We had one more day in Amsterdam before flying home. I didn’t know whether I would be allowed to bring my cheeses home on the plane. A dark little cheese-wheel-shaped cloud formed over my head as I wondered what would become of my precious cheese hoard.
In the meantime, we still had plenty of time to enjoy Alkmaar and do some more exploring. We took in the farmer’s market, which, of course, included more cheese. One table sold the most lovely cheese samples, perfect for a snack:
We also took in the Cheese Museum, because, well, it seemed silly not to, considering it was the entire theme of the day. The museum was quite informative, going through the history of cheese in Alkmaar, and housing many cheese-related implements. The documentary film was well worth the price of admission alone, though the museum itself is quite traditional and at times, a bit dry.
What it Offers: Aside from the Friday cheese market and cheese museum, there is also a national beer museum, housed in a 17th Century brewery. However since we had already seen the Heineken museum in Amsterdam, we decided to forego visiting the one in Alkmaar. I realize it’s not a fair comparison, and the Heineken museum is very commercial (it literally contains an entire room devoted just to its commercials). But, in the theme of being museumed-out, we decided that one could only go to so many beer museums on one trip. But if anyone has gone to the museum, please share your experiences and whether it was worth visiting!
There is also a Beatles museum, an art museum, several lovely churches…even a red light district! But really, Alkmaar’s claim to fame is the cheese market. If you want to see this pretty little town from a different vantage point, try renting a bike or taking a canal boat tour.
Getting There: The easiest way is by Intercity train from Amsterdam, and takes about 35 minutes. Four trains run per hour. If biking is more your style, the route is 57 km long and takes about 4 hours. But it would be a good way to burn off all those cheese-induced calories!
Food and Drink: Well, if you didn’t gorge yourself on cheese samples, street food and poffertjes, there is a wide variety of cafes and eateries to suit your mood, including Mexican! The beer museum bar apparently offers over 80 different beers, if you prefer your meals in liquid form. So you won’t go hungry, or thirsty in this town!
Shopping Level: Surprisingly good for a town of 95,000. We probably spent an hour or two shopping, which we didn’t expect to do. The main shopping street is mostly pedestrian-only, with the occasional car coming in and out, so be mindful of that. My favourite find was Miss Etam; a chain with clothing similar to Cleo or Ricki’s, and very reasonable prices. http://www.missetam.nl/
How Long to Stay: I would recommend getting here for at least 9:30am if you want a good view of the cheese market festivities, as it does get crowded quickly. The bell rings promptly at 10am, and by 12:30 things pretty much disperse, leaving you to your own devices. Save some time to wander the streets filled with lovely cafes and shops, and take in a museum or two. Half a day will cover several of the highlights depending on your interests.
As for my fears of bringing the cheese back with me on the plane? Well, as soon as we got back to Amsterdam we headed to the Apple store to Google the customs limitations for Canada. Yes, I was that paranoid, and determined, not to be forced to gorge myself on all the cheese we had just purchased, or worse yet, have to throw it away at the airport, never to savour its creamy delights. Here’s what we discovered:
Dairy products (e.g.: cheese, milk, yogurt, butter)
- up to 20 kilograms per person with a value of $20 or less
Had we researched this beforehand, we would have bought more! I still declared my cheesey treasure to customs though, to make sure everything was on the up-and-up and that the rules hadn’t changed. So go, indulge, and be sure to treat yourself to a grab bag. Alkmaar is definitely worth a side trip!