Last week we visited the famous Alkmaar Cheese Market. I absolutely loved Alkmaar, the traditional cheese market, and last but not least the Dutch cheese. To me, cheese has always been synonymous with the Netherlands. In Lithuania, where I come from, we call all hard yellow cheeses ‘Dutch cheese‘. Here in Belgium we have a big variety of Dutch cheeses, with Gouda and Oud Amsterdam being the favourites at home. But I never really asked myself where it came from, how it was made, how long it ripened… Nor did I know that Dutch cheese has such a long and rich history and a whole bunch of traditions related to it.
So I didn’t really know what to expect when we went to Alkmaar last week to visit the most famous cheese market in the world. I have heard of the market and have seen the pictures of the market square filled with stacks of cheese and the famous cheese bearers in traditional clothing, but what I found has surprised me beyond expectations. I loved the market, the atmosphere, the friendly people and the beautiful town of Alkmaar. And we all loved the cheese, of course!
Alkmaar cheese market – what to expect
The market starts at 10AM when the bell rings. It’s done by the guest of honour – usually, a famous person or a political figure.
We arrived at the market square about half an hour before the market started. The town and the market square were just waking up it seemed – the shops were opening and the market stalls were being set up, the cheese bearers were gathering on the Waagplein, and the first tourists started to gather around the market square. The atmosphere was very relaxed – the cheese bearers, the samplers and the traders were laughing and greeting each other cheerfully and it truly felt like you were amongst the group of friends who invited you to their home.
The cheese market has been a part of Alkmaar for over 400 years and it has always taken place on the Waagplein, just as it does today. Over time the cheese market grew more than 8 times in size and the houses around the square had to be demolished to accommodate its expansion.
No real trade is conducted at today’s market, but a true-to-life weekly demonstration keeps the tradition alive. It’s such an amazing spectacle and it feels truly authentic. You can see that everyone involved takes their task seriously and that they are truly enjoying it.
The samplers are inspecting the cheese and sharing it with the public, the cheese bearers are waving and smiling for the pictures as they pass carrying 120kg (265 pounds) weight as if it was the most pleasant task in the world.
The cheese carriers have this peculiar way of walking/running. They invited some spectators to join – it was not as easy as it looked. I just couldn’t get enough of watching this bustling vibrant spectacle.
The cheese is sampled and the deal is made by clapping of the hands. The cheese is then loaded on a barrow and carried to the Waag where it is weighed, paid for and carried away to the woorden hand-barrows.
In the past the cheese was transported by horse or by boat. They still have cheese carrying boats sailing around the canals next to the Waagplein during the weekly cheese market.
Some facts about the Alkmaar cheese market and the Dutch cheese
- The cheese has the round shape of a wheel in order to be able to roll it. This helped to transport the cheese to the market in the former days.
- The whole Gouda cheese weighs about 12kg. 120 liters of milk are used to make just one cheese.
- Most of the cheeses in Alkmaar cheese market are either young (matured for about 1 month) or semi-matured (2 months), but you can find very aged cheeses that are matured for 1 year and longer. The older the cheese, the stronger, saltier the taste.
Age is not important, unless you are a cheese.
- 2,400 cheeses with a total weight of 28,000 kg are set out on the Alkmaar cheese market every week. It’s all Gouda cheese from the region of North Holland.
- Cheese bearing is an honorary job and one that involves many traditions and rules. They are not in it for the money, that’s for sure! The cheese bearer’s yearly wages consist of a 5 EUR payment for the bearers, two almond paste cakes for their wives (for keeping their outfits snow-white) and a loaf of white bread with butter and cheese for the children. But if you see them working, you’d think it’s the best-paid job in the world…
- Dutch people eat an average of 19kg of cheese per year.
- Cheese is one of the largest export products of the Netherlands with 640 million kg of cheese exported every year.
- The Dutch people are sometimes called ‘the cheese heads‘ – not something you want to try if you want to stay friends with your Dutch colleague. But the people of Alkmaar are proud of this nickname ‘kaaskoppen‘. The name originates from the 16th century when the people of Alkmaar battled and won against the Spanish. Due to the shortage of helmets, they wore wooden vats used for cheese making – thus the name.
Alkmaar cheese market with kids
During summer school holidays children can participate in the children’s cheese market. You can either register on the official cheese market website or check at the information centre located on the South side of the Waagplein, in the same building as the cheese museum.
Kids from 5 years and older can participate, adults are not allowed. Our kids took part and they were taken on the market square itself (where general public is not allowed) where they could try to lift the cheese and guess its weight. They could also taste some cheese and they liked it so much that I had to buy three pieces of the ‘golden’ (Gouda) cheese afterwards.
They told me they were also taken on the balcony where they could see the whole square from above and at the end they were weighed on the cheese weighing scale and received a certificate. The children’s cheese market is only available in Dutch, but I think that any child would enjoy it, and the chance is big that people doing the tour speak English as well.
Just behind the weighing building there was also a small corner with children’s cheese carrying stretchers and some cheese they could carry around. Our kids loved this – they had watched all those cheese bearers in action and now they could be just like them! No need to reserve this one – just stop by.
Practical info for visiting Alkmaar cheese market
- Alkmaar cheese market takes place on the Waagplein between 10AM and 12.30 PM every Friday in summer. It starts in April and ends in the beginning of September.
- If you can, try to get to the market at least half an hour before the opening and reserve the spot close to the weighing building as this is where most of the action takes place. It gets really busy later on and by 11AM the whole market square is so crowded that you can hardly pass, let alone see anything.
- Alkmaar can be easily visited as a day trip from Amsterdam. Or, if you prefer, you can arrive in Alkmaar on Thursday evening and stay at a hotel in Alkmaar, as we did. We stayed at the College Hotel Alkmaar and this hotel had all we needed: a big family room, great location, parking facilities, fantastic service and very good breakfast. Recommended!
- Allow half a day for a visit to Alkmaar – half an hour to an hour to see the market, then buy some cheese or Dutch souvenirs at one of the market stands or cheese shops, and make sure you take some time to walk around the town centre – Alkmaar is so much more than just the cheese market.
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If you are traveling to the Netherlands, don’t miss the visit to the famous windmills of Kinderdijk as well.