The Alkmaar Cheese Market takes place in Alkmaar’s main square every Friday at 10 a.m., from early April to early September. It is one of five cheese markets operating in the Netherlands. Woerden is a fully functional modern commercial cheese market and Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, Hoorn, are reproductions of traditional merchant cheese markets as operated in the Middle Ages. These shows are today surrounded by stalls selling all things traditional to the Dutch culture, including cheese.
Haven never seen traditional cheese porters, we decided to take the girls who were still on holiday to see this ‘cheesy spectacle’. Some of my dutch colleagues (who had never been mind you) said it was a real tourist thing to do but hey, I’m not dutch! Even though we’ve been here for over 2 years, there’s so so much we haven’t seen or done so when we get the chance to explore a bit more of our backyard, we do.
Before we left, I read that tour groups generally arrive early, so we tried to get there for 9:30 a.m. However, when we arrived, I was completely taken aback at how full it was. Dismayed because we couldn’t find standing space…for effective viewing and photographing.
After my husband had daughter #1 on his neck taking the photos and she did a pretty good job.
We decided to take a stroll around the stalls lining the canal and bordering the market.
Daughter #2 who likes cheese (as opposed to Daughter#1 who hates it) requested a wedge from the variety on show. At 50 cents a pop, that was not too hot to handle!
This market has been in existence for for at least 600 years since cheese buyers and sellers came together to set up guilds.
The members of the guild are a group of dairy in white uniforms, straw hats with colored ribbons who carry wheels of cheese to and from a 14th Century weighhouse on wooden barrows!
The Alkmaar cheese carriers’ guild is responsible for moving and weighing cheese during the cheese market on Fridays. The guild consists of four groups (vemen) of seven men each.
Each veem has its own colour: red, yellow, green or blue. The head of the four vemen is the ‘cheese father’, the supervisor. As a sign of his office, the cheese father carries a black stick with a silver knob. The cheese carriers wear the traditional costume: a white suit and a straw hat with a ribbon in the colour of their own veem. An experienced carrier is known as a vastman (a regular). Before then, he is known as a noodhulp (temporary assistant). The oldest cheese carrier in a veem is called the tasman (bagman). He can be recognised by the black leather bag he wears. The tasman puts the weights on the balance when the cheese is weighed.
Every two years, a leader is chosen for each veem: the overman. He can be recognised by a little silver escutcheon with a ribbon in the colour of his veem. The board of the guild appoints a provost and a servant. The provost helps the guild board and is known ‘executioner’ by the cheese carriers. He notes the names of latecomers and collects the appropriate fine. The provost wears a silver cheese barrow on a ribbon in the colour of his veem. The servant does the odd jobs for the guild.
Haggling about the price takes place using the handjeklap system, literally clapping hands with other merchants
5. CGM continue to cart the cheese to the scale and to the truck.
On Fridays, the square is prepared before the cheese carriers’ guild goes into action. The market inspector supervises the removal of the cheese from the trucks as they are positioned on the square in long rows by the zetters. When the bell is rung at ten o’clock, the zetters load the barrows and the cheese carriers carry them to the balance to weigh the cheese. Sworn weighing masters supervise the weighing and complete the weight slips. Meanwhile, on the square, traders and inspectors determine the quality of the cheese on offer.
On our stroll, we had a bathroom stop in a cafe on the shopping street and even there, we were completely surrounded by photos and paintings of cheese -a testament to the longevity of cheese and history!
It was perfectly timed because by the time we were done and had walked round to the other side of the square, there was room for us to get close…and watch the action. Somehow the crowds were much thinner on this side, probably because it wasn’t the side facing the main entrance. Proof that you shouldn’t give up, just like that!
Shmuck and glass describes it perfectly….so I’ll only make additions, highlighted in bold.
1. A lady talks into a microphone for a long, long time. Most of it is Dutch. Her accent is so thick that even when she speaks English it is hard to understand. The lady who spoke on our day could speak pretty good English- she welcomed guests from round the world and spoke a bit about the Cheese market.
2. Men in white lab coats walk around with clipboards. At each pile of cheese, they stop, lift the tarp, take a wheel from the pile, and cut it up. They taste one piece and give some to the crowd. Then they write down stuff. These are the inspectors who check the quality of the Cheese ensuring that it is up to specifications. The samplers and traders go to work- inspecting cheese is more than just looking at its exterior. Cheese is knocked on and a special cheese scoop used to obtain a piece, which is then crumbled between the fingers and smelled!
3. Young women in traditional Dutch dress walk around the plaza next to the barricades doing not much other than looking like traditional Dutch cheese maidens. I think that’s what they’re going for. They have white Amish bonnets, red neck scarves, blue apronish dresses, red socks, and wooden clogs. The ladies sell brochures about Cheese and the Cheese market (The idea came from the Dutch Dairy Board, who are responsible for the promotion of Dutch cheese at home and abroad)
4. Cheese Guild Men cart wheels of cheese, eight at a time (each of them weighing 13,5 kilos), on a special wooden harness stretcher. They carry them to the big scale in the front, and then they carry them back to a wheelbarrow, which is then wheeled to a cheese truck out of view. the Cheese Guild Men wear all white except for their hats, which are like little straw play bonnets, only painted yellow, red, green, and blue, and tied with a coordinated ribbon. The Head CGM wears an orange hat to show he is in charge. (If he showed up in America dressed like that he would for sure be beat up.) This is a spectacle not to be missed. On special request, children and put on the barrows and toted around the square, to peals of laughter and excitement.
Children are also very welcome in the square- but I guess it has to be pre-arranged.
The weighing house, is home to a Cheese museum, which provides spectacular views of the square below!
Not to mention the range of cheese facts and stories from ancient times. We saw a video as well which detailed the history of cheese production in the Netherlands, which was very entertaining and enlightening.
Once the batch is sold and weighed, the cheese carriers carry the cheese across the market to the buyers’ lorries. This is what we saw as we prepared to leave. It was interesting to see the wheels of cheese being loaded – a nice way to ‘complete’ the loop of the commercial cheese activity!
A great day out – highly recommended!
It was a lovely experience and as soon as I got back to work, I said to my dutch colleagues who said it was cheesy and touristy and therefore not worthy…..’Have you been?’ And when I got the ‘No’ response, I told them perhaps they need to go before judging….