The Alkmaar Cheese Market, as cheesy as it sounds, has always sounded fascinating to me, so much so that it appeared on my Dutch Bucket List recently.
After visiting the famous cheese town of Gouda last week, I got my act together. I needed to complete my cheese experience and see the market, so I tracked down its opening hours; 10am-12.30pm every Friday from April to September. Done. Locked in.
Just like my visit to Edam last year, Gouda doesn’t actually have a lot to do with cheese today. It may have in the past, but ‘Gouda cheese’ can be manufactured anywhere in the world; even in the Netherlands, it’s more likely to come from Friesland in the north.
I wasn’t too disappointed. The city was cute in that unassuming Dutch way, with little cheese rounds hanging off those little strings in the main street which are usually reserved for Christmas decorations and the like. Not in Gouda, though.
Obviously, a few decorative cheeses weren’t going to do it for me. So on Friday, with the sun again shining brightly, I jumped on a train to Alkmaar. A couple of trains, actually; Alkmaar’s about a half an hour north of Amsterdam, so I settled in with all the commuters as I headed north.
I got to the market square right on ten o’clock, just as the bell was rung. Especially due to my lovely, tourist-lite day in Amsterdam the day before, I wasn’t ready for crowds. I was gobsmacked when I saw the tourist buses lined up, and the six-deep crowds around the fenced-off square.There was even a grandstand. I couldn’t see a thing. As the announcer welcomed us all in four languages, I was elbowed out of the way by a Chinese man with a very large camera. I cracked it, big time, and exited the huddle quick smart.
I wasn’t prepared to be disappointed by Alkmaar, not in the slightest. I just felt like a bit of a fool, sucked into the promise of cheese and tradition. Instead, I got package tour groups, overpriced cheese stands and elbows.
Figuring that the market went on for a good two and a half hours, I decided to take a bit of time to find a better spot. I worked my way around, seeing the cheese carriers getting prepared and the trucks picking up their stock. It made it feel a bit more authentic, and I relaxed.
I found my way to the other side of the square, where front-row spots were still available. And so I settled in. I was surrounded by Dutchies and a few American couples, who were much more tolerable. My opinion of Alkmaar, in turn, skyrocketed.
Alkmaar’s Cheese Market is incredibly special. Some say that the market has been around since 1365, but 1593 is the year that everyone’s prepared to agree upon. Not that 1593 isn’t impressive; when most of the ‘history’ you see when travelling has got to do with buildings, art and re-enactments, it certainly gives you tingles when you see people doing the same thing as their descendants have done for the past 400-odd years. Even the cheese carriers’ guild is soon to celebrate its four hundred year anniversary.
So, you’ve got the cheese carriers…
Who are the crowd favourites. It’s all about them, really. There’s only thirty of them, plus the boss, who is known as the ‘Cheese Father’. I doubt that’s a job category on the drop-down menu when you do your tax return. All these guys do is run the cheese down to the scales and back again, but they do it in a dashing little hat and what looks like cricket whites.
Then you’ve got the cheese setters, who don’t look nearly as dashing.
These guys seem to do all the work yet no credit. They don’t even get a hat, nor a snazzy uniform. They also look like they would have back problems later in life. “Bend your knees!” I wanted to yell.
Then, to complete the set, you have the cheese inspectors.
These old codgers faff about in their laboratory coats, picking the cheese up, knocking on it, throwing it, you get the picture. These guys here cut the cheese open, and then came over to me and my posse for a taste test. Our verdict? ‘Lekker!’ (Delicious!)
There’s a lot of other different parts of the market; you’ve also got the ones who are actually buying, who bid in the traditional way of clapping their hands. There’s also women in milkmaid outfits and clogs wandering around and flogging cheese for double the price than in the Albert Heijn.
I watched the market for a couple of hours, happy in the sun and watching all the workers do their thing. The 25-degree day made everyone a lot happier, and the cheese men would banter about whilst flinging the fourteen kilogram cheeses to and fro, like they’d done for centuries. It also helped that after about half an hour, the crowds thinned out too. I wandered around the town, charmed by the little canals and laneways that appear in every historic Dutch town, yet are somehow also unique.
Perhaps that’s what sets Alkmaar apart from those other historic towns; its cheese market. When everyone’s got a square, a church and a pretty town hall, you need something else to stand out from the crowd. So yes, Alkmaar may have constructed a grandstand in their town square and let the Korean television crews run riot, but they’ve got to make a living.
So you’ve got to give it to Alkmaar. So when you’ve got dozens of cities offering regional takes on churches, town halls and squares, there aren’t many that can present a citizen known only as the Cheese Father. The grandstands and the camera crews don’t spoil that. Not yet, anyway. I’ll check back in another four centuries.