Friday, September 12, 2014

Say Yes To The Cheese

Cheese anyone?
There is certainly no shortage of good cheese in Europe. Whether it be made from cow, sheep or goat milk it seems as though each region of Europe specializes in their own variety of cheese. Now I've always loved cheese and have been having a great time exploring the different varieties I encounter during my travels.  I'm particularly fond of sheep and goats milk cheeses (which taste so different than the ones I'm used to in the United States) as well as the numerous raw milk varieties that are readily available in the markets. So because of this love of cheese, when I had the opportunity to visit the Alkmaar Cheese Market in the Netherlands I jumped at the chance.

This cheese market located in northern Netherlands traces its roots back to 1593. However, as early as 1365, Alkmaar had a set of cheese scales that were used in the weighing and selling of cheese. Every cheese producing region has their "secrets" that make their cheese the best. In Alkmaar, the secret to the Beemster cooperative cheese that is sold at the market is their polder, or system of dykes and windmills that create fertile and nutrient rich grass from which their cows graze. (The design of the polder was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1999). Here's a fun fact: according to Beemster, one cow requires 50 kilograms of grass and 125 liters of water in order to produce the 30 liters of milk that in turn make 3 kilograms of cheese. That means it takes a lot of cows, grass, water and milk in order to make the cheese that is sold at the weekly cheese market.

Today the cheese market operates from early April through early September on the Waagplein, the same central square where it has been taking place for centuries. While the ceremony plays to visitors (the Dutch production is translated into English, French and German), the rituals themselves are as old as the cheese market and are a spectacle to behold. Only members of the cheese guild can trade at the market. The Cheese Father, who is the head of the four forwarding cheese companies that trade at the market, leads the ceremony and ensures that the rituals are followed.

Prior to the arrival of the crowds, the cheese begins to arrive by truck and yes, even boat. Then the cheese setters or kaaszetters get to work, offloading the cheese onto the square. With the ringing of the bell at 10.00 sharp, the market opens with a flurry of activity as cheese testers and traders dressed in plush robes examine the quality of the cheese on both the inside and outside. The texture and appearance of the cheese, the number of holes and their distribution on the inside all contribute to the overall quality of the cheese and influence the price the cheese will garner. Haggling ensues until a price per kilogram is agreed upon. Spectators will know when a deal has been reached since they will see the clapping of hands which seals the deal. The cheese is then carried off in wooden wagons to the Waag where it is weighed. Finally, white dressed cheese carriers tote the sold cheese on wooden barrows to the waiting trucks. The sight of these men is impressive as is their feat; eight wheels of Gouda cheese, each weighing 13.5 kilograms, are loaded on the 25 kilogram barrow and balanced between their two sets of shoulders. Being a cheese carrier certainly isn't for the weak.

Cheese heading to market

Sharply at 10.00 the market opens

The cheese market in action

So grab your camera, wear comfortable shoes and go early to get a good spot. Everything in Alkmaar is cheese related and you will be able to buy cheese at just about every shop and mobile vendor. For the best deal, however, buy one of the grab bags of cheese that are sold by the cheese girls are the market. You are never sure what you are going to get but for 10 Euros I received four good sized chunks of cheese as well as a linen tea towel.

If you go:
Alkmaar, The Netherlands
Fridays from early April through early September from 10.00-12.30

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