If we talk about Holland, we recall windmills, cheese, and tulips. But do you know the Netherlands is the second-largest producer of cheese in the world? The first one is France. Although my wife and I prefer French cheeses, we couldn’t resist the temptation to visit the Alkmaar cheese market (Kaasmarkt) in Holland, a region on the western coast of the Netherlands.
At the end of our two weeks of travel around Belgium and the Netherlands, when we already finished the investigation of key features of the Holland school of painting, we decided to visit Alkmaar, the Dutch city which is similar to our favorite, Bruges, Belgium, with its architecture and canals. It was Friday, the special day for this city, when usually cozy and quiet Alkmaar turns into a world-famous tourist center.
Since 1593, at 10 a.m. every Friday from March to September, Alkmaar has been hosting a cheese market. What a decent permanence – more than 400 years! But over time, the medieval tradition has been turned into a show. If you expect the Alkmaar cheese market to look like rows of stores with heads of Dutch cheese, you are mistaken. What hasn’t changed is the system of auction, the dresses of cheese porters (kaasdragers), and the cheese of Gouda, but the feeling of presence on the filming of a low budget movie doesn’t leave you for a minute.
I always wondered how Edam and Gouda cheeses with their pretty ordinary taste have managed to gain such unbelievable popularity in the world. You can find them in almost every supermarket of any country. The answer is marketing. I would even say superb marketing.
In Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, numerous advertising booklets and posters state, “If you are in the Netherlands, you must visit Alkmaar! You will get a lot of unforgettable impressions from its cheese fair! You must see it with your own eyes! Come down to the picturesque Waagplein (the Weigh Square) at 10 a.m. The cheese market is surrounded by small tents where you can find real Dutch poffertjes (fluffy pancakes), herring, farm cheese, and much more!”
We arrived there at 9 a.m., but the fence around the Weigh Square was already densely surrounded by spectators. We found free places in the third row. Sure, it wasn’t the best position for a photo session. It was one hour before the beginning of the show, but people were arriving. The spring sun was really bright (don’t forget your hats). Like soldiers on duty we were standing on our posts until the strike of the bell, which marked the opening of the Cheese Market. By this time, behind us, two more rows of cheese enthusiasts had arrived, who hoped to see at least something over the heads of those who had captured places earlier.
A magnificent building decorating the square where tourists enjoy the cheese show 22 Fridays in a row every year is a former Catholic church of the 14th century. In 1582, Protestants found a new use for it. Since that time, it has been an office of weights and measures plus a museum of cheese, whatever that means.
What will you see in this cheese market? About 2,000 heads of cheese of the same appearance are laid in several long rows on the square. After the strike of the bell, the show’s host, the mayor of Alkmaar, and an honorary guest (it was the ambassador of Sweden in our case) come out on the square and make their speeches. Then cheese porters from the cheese carriers guild, stemming from the Middle Ages and existing only in Alkmaar, start their work. Green, blue, red, and yellow ribbons on their straw hats show their belonging to one or another forwarding company in the guild.
Big guys load eight cheese heads on a special stretcher and run with it to the Weigh House. After weighing, they return cheeses to the square. This is also a competition – which team will weigh more cheese before the closure of the market. While they are running, girls and boys dressed in national costumes offer viewers small souvenir packages with different cheeses, of course for 10 Euro each.
Probably these souvenir cheeses were not bad, but we had a different plan. While my wife was watching the show and waiting for something breathtaking or at least interesting, I decided to explore merchant tents which surrounded the square. There, ladies in national dresses (sort of farmer’s wives) sold different cheeses which were offered for tasting. I found a cheese with truffles and brought Irina a small piece.
“Honey, they also have a cheese with truffles! Taste it.”
She tasted it. “And where are the truffles here?”
Well, at least that cheese had black “truffle” dots. A couple of years ago (and again one year later) we stayed in Carcassonne, France, where we ate the best truffle cheese in our life, therefore we know for sure the taste of a cheese with real truffles.
All in all, we endured this “unforgettable” action on the Waagplein for about 15 minutes, took some mediocre shots, and left our places to the delight of the people from the back rows.
During the fair, two picturesque old men “transported” a lot of cheeses in their small boats along the canals around the cheese market. This is also a part of the show. Hundreds of years ago, farmers delivered their cheeses to the market that way.
Most visitors come to the cheese fair with group tours from Amsterdam. Many of them are Chinese, and I understand their interest. For several thousand years, Chinese people didn’t eat dairy products at all because cows were considered impure animals. Today, cheese is an exotic product for them, and they willingly buy all these small pieces of cheese on the Waagplein of Alkmaar. But I don’t advise doing it if you are a cheese gourmet. Instead, take a few steps outside the Weigh Square and get deep into neighboring medieval streets. There, you will find numerous cheese stores with a wide assortment of cheeses not only from the Netherlands, but also from France and Italy. And their prices will be normal in comparison with those on the square.
As I was told, the Dutch prefer not Edam or Gouda, but Old Dutch Master, Maasdam, Beemster, and Vermeer. That day, we bought a wonderful Maasdam with enormous holes, 30-year-old Old Amsterdam with grains like in old Italian Grana Padano, and a superb goat cheese with mustard seeds.
Then we took a stroll along the small narrow streets, relaxed in a cafe, and agreed that Alkmaar is a cozy city. Canals and small houses make it photogenic and pleasant for strolling. The trip to Alkmaar takes no more than 40 minutes by train which leaves the central station of Amsterdam every 15 minutes.
We think that visiting Alkmaar only for its cheese market show isn’t worth your time, but staying there for a week (excluding Friday) would be a good idea.