Story of the week: Following the Dutch cheese trail

DSCN1802

* We’re back. Back-end technical issues kept us offline for a few weeks but Story of the Week returns today.

As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.

Think cheese. You probably think of artisan producers in France or the Alpine-pasture produce of Switzerland – but Holland?

All those plastic-wrapped blocks of supermarket Edam are hardly going to whet your appetite. Yet a Dutch producer is currently the world’s big cheese.

Vermeer, a Gouda cheese produced by the company FrieslandCampina, took the top prize at the last World Championship Cheese Contest in America (the next contest is 2014).

“Sadly, much of our exported cheese is young and lacking in flavour,” says leading Dutch cheesemaker Henri Willig, himself a former winner of the contest for his Polder Gold goats cheese.

“Yet proper Dutch cheese has a unique flavour given the soil, the grass the Fresian cows feed on, and the milk they produce. It is creamy with a hint of sourness.”

 Cheese trail

There are currently some 150 cheesemakers along Holland’s burgeoning cheese trail, ranging from big companies like Willig and Cono to small-scale artisan producers.

Much like travelling the route des grands crus in French wine country, you can drop in and visit the farm (it’s good form to buy some produce to take home). Larger producers offer tours and gift shops for cheesy souvenirs.

I’ve come to the rural heartland of North Holland, a region traditionally associated with dairy, sheep and flower farming, to follow the trail.

During a self-drive weekend of bucolic villages, slow-paced life and a chance to consume my own body weight in cheese, I want to explore the rural traditions that are the cornerstone of cheese making in Holland.

Driving north from Amsterdam, the countryside opens up to reveal a steam-ironed landscape of grazing pasture, demarcated by slow-flowing dikes and polders, land beneath sea level pumped dry of water by windmills.

Monks invented the pumping technique and farmers developed it for agriculture from the 16th century. Colourful village festivals, based around the agricultural calendar, developed soon after and, by the time Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in 1658, many towns across northern Holland had their very own cheese market.

My first stop is the city of Edam, home to a historic cheese-weighing hall.

William of Orange first granted Edam the right to trade cheese in 1576 and the town still hosts a cheese market during summer months, although these days it’s more about show than trade.

Cheese shops around town [pictured above] stock examples of the three traditional Dutch varieties of cheese, namely Edam, Gouda and cumin-spiced Leiden. Local restaurants also support the cheese-chomping mania with my dinner that night featuring a Messenklever Edam and a Bergens Blonde, all served with fig compote.

The next day I head to Beemster, the oldest polder in northern Holland, dating from 1612. The reclaimed region, parceled out in a rectangular grid and dotted with farms and merchants’ stately mansions, is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The Farming Museum highlights the importance of traditional technology in man’s battle with the water to maintain the quality the diary-farming pasture, using dykes and windmills to control the water level.

Pilgrimage site 

The Holy Grail for the cheese cognoscenti, however, remains the town of Alkmaar, where Waagplein, the central square, has hosted Holland’s most important cheese market for centuries.

Alkmaar had a weighing house for cheese as early as 1365. On a single day in 1917, some 365,000kg of cheese were sold at Alkmaar with trade lasting into the early hours of the morning. The market survives only on Fridays between March and September these days, combining an element of visitor-drawing theatre with genuine trade.

The members of the Cheese Carrier’s Guild, dressed in starched-white uniforms and sporting jaunty straw boaters with rival colour sashes, compete to showcase their cheese-lifting skills.

Responsible for weighing and transporting the cheese, they run through the crowd with handcarts, drawing whoops form the crowd as they manhandle a huge round-shaped Edam in an elaborate show of strength.

Around the perimeter of the square, meanwhile, pairs of cheese traders bargain according to a complex ancient ritual. They exchange a series of singsong handclaps while negotiating the price, slapping each other’s hands in turn during the trade and only stopping to clinch a normal handshake once the final price has been agreed.

After the show, I explore the traditional weighing hall, now a museum dedicated to the story of cheese making with displays tracing the history of cheese making from medieval agriculture to 20th-century artefacts. Pride of place is given to a series of ancient kaasschaaf, thin, cheese slicers used to cut into and slice the cheese for sampling.

No self-respecting cheese connoisseur round these parts would be seen using a knife to slice their cheese.

Ancient cheese warehouses still survive amongst the wood-panelled buildings, medieval courtyards and quiet canals around town. A series of bright, cheery posters plastered across ancient buildings encourage people to consider cow wellbeing at all times.

“Allow them to roam free in the pasture,” they proclaim.

Cheese shops on side streets off the main square ply the traditional styles of Dutch cheese, but also increasingly sell an array of the new flavours currently en vogue amongst next-generation cheese-consumers – pesto, stinging nettle and paprika amongst them.

New flavours

“Personally, I prefer the creamier flavour of Dutch cheese to other European cheeses, such as French or English,” says Helen de Gier, a sales assistant at the Notenbranderij shop, talking me through a counter heaving under the waxy skins of brightly coloured cheeses.

“It’s the combination of softness with sourness.”

I come away with several varieties to take home, including an exotic black truffle cheese. Better still, after a tranquil weekend exploring rural Holland and sampling the new breed of artisan flavours, I’ve seen the light about the true taste of Dutch cheese.

I’ll never buy another plastic pack of supermarket Edam again.

* This story was first published in the Independent on April 16, 2014. Read the edited version at Follow the cheese trail across the Netherlands. Liked this? A similar piece won a travel-writing award in 2013. Read more at Dutch Lifestyle Travel Writing Awards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.