Early Friday morning found us on the road from Delft passing thru the flat, postcard-pretty Dutch countryside. Cows were grazing in the fields where windmills turned in the light breeze. It was a nice day with the sun shining and traffic was light. We were headed north for Alkmaar, about 95 kilometers away.
It is a city known for its open-air cheese market held only during Fridays from 10:00AM. The reason why we left early was to be there before the action started. Well, we arrived with time to spare and, after parking the car, bought sweaters in the market stall nearby since the morning was quite chilly. We walked down the pedestrian-only main street, Langestraat which started from the yard of the Sint Laurenskerk, Alkmaar’s main church. Halfway down the way, which was lined with boutiques and small shops, we passed by the Stadhuis or Town Hall built in a combination of Gothic and Baroque styles in 1509. It’s quite a striking structure.
The crowd waiting for the auction to begin.
Quick action goes on like a well-choreographed play.
The cheese market is located right in the waagplein or main square of the pretty town center with the historic weigh house on one side. In the old days, all the weighing was done here but now it houses a restaurant and the Cheese Museum. On the other side was a canal lined with stalls selling not only different kinds of cheeses but Dutch souvenir items as well.
The square was fenced off and right in the middle of this was row upon row of cheeses piled on top of each other waiting for the auction. The market is now a great attraction for tourists where a ritualized version of the old haggling goes on. We found a spot by the railing and waited for the show to begin. There was a camera crew filming the whole thing as the bell rang and an announcer started describing the process of buying and selling the cheese. The PA system wasn’t good so we hardly heard what was being said except that there was a guest celebrity in the person of a young Dutch cyclist from the Tour de France (I forgot the name) who was quite good-looking and was a hit with the ladies who clapped enthusiastically every time he waved at the crowd.
You could have your fill of cheese here from the numerous varieties on sale.
The milkmaid and her cow.
There was a group of men made up of the inspectors and traders looking over the cheeses. Later, two of them standing at the center started slapping each other’s hands in a sideways motion. It seemed that they stopped only when the deal was consummated. A two-man team started loading the cheeses on what looked like sleds which they carried by long straps on their shoulders and brought them to the weigh house to be weighed. They moved quickly and rhythmically like skaters with the heavy load on their shoulders lightly swaying as they delivered it to the buyer’s truck parked nearby.
These were the porters who are members of the cheese carriers’ guild which is responsible for moving and weighing the cheeses. The guild consists of four groups of seven men each. They have their own colors – red, yellow, green and blue – to distinguish them from each other and they wear their traditional costumes consisting of a white suit with suspenders and straw hat with a ribbon in the color of their guild.
Boats wait in the canal for tourists who want to go cruising after the auction.
The cheese was made up of two kinds: Gouda and Edam, both deriving their respective names from the towns where they were made. About sixty percent of the entire Dutch cheese production is from Gouda and they are distinguished by their wheel-shaped form. It has a mild and creamy flavor but as it matures, its character changes and acquires a more robust flavor and firmer texture. Edam, on the other hand, originally came from the town in North Holland although nowadays, the cheese comes from all over the Netherlands. It is round and usually has a distinctive red color obtained by dipping or spraying it with wax which gives the cheese its protective coating. It has a milder flavor and smoother texture compared to Gouda.
Some serious bargaining going on.
Iconic Dutch clogs on sale by the sidewalk.
The Cheese Museum
We watched the spectacle for about an hour as the crowd grew thicker and more tourist buses started arriving. On our way back to the main street, we bought 4 kilos of cheese (6 Euros per kilo) after tasting different varieties on the stalls where the women sellers wore traditional Dutch costumes. It looked like a country fair with humongous cows brought by some farmers, adding real “countryside ambiance” to the scene. We sure had a lot of fun. And, yes, those cheeses sure came in handy as snacks in the days ahead when we drove onwards to Copenhagen and Berlin .