by Lee Foster
Few experiences satisfy the person who savors food and drink more than a journey to the source, the place where a favorite wine, cheese, or fruit is produced. The encounter imparts a knowledge of terrain and an appreciation of techniques used to make the prized food or drink. No book can teach this experience; no number of trips to the local delicatessen or bottle shop can equal it.
For the appreciator of cheese, Dutch cheese is one of the gustatory glories of the Netherlands. The place to start is a good cheese store in Amsterdam. Beyond Amsterdam, you can visit the cheese markets at Alkmaar and at Gouda. You can also visit a cheese-making farm, Clara Maria, near Amsterdam. Details can be easily arranged by the Netherlands Board of Tourism office, www.holland.com.
Cheese Shops in Amsterdam
Cheese shops in Amsterdam, such as Abraham Kef’s, 192 Marninxstraat, are the places to make your first encounter with Dutch cheeses. At Kef’s you can make a tasting ceremony of cheese and wine.
First, try a slice of Gouda, which is 60 percent of all the cheese produced in the Netherlands. Half of this Gouda is exported, making the Dutch one of the world’s largest exporters of cheese.
Ask for a piece of Young Gouda, about three months old, which is imported to the U.S. labeled Young or Mild Gouda. Most Goudas are whole milk cheeses with a fat content of 48 percent. The Young Gouda has a creamy, buttery taste. Using a cheese knife, cut thin slices so the flavor can melt on your tongue.
Next, try a slice of Aged Gouda, about six months old, from a typical Gouda cartwheel, which can vary in weight from three to 20 kilograms. Multiply by 2.2 to convert to pounds. In the U.S. the terms Aged, Medium, and Mature on the label indicate Aged Gouda. This cheese exudes a more concentrated nutty taste in a drier texture than the Young Gouda.
Finally, the cheese seller may offer you a Very Aged Gouda, which in the U.S. is called Old Gouda, meaning a cheese one year old. This cheese lingers on your palate with an intense taste, almost brown-sugar-in-butter, a liqueur of cheese, like a glass of 20-year-old Bordeaux from a good vintage. The cheese seller may have in stock Gouda that is three or even five years old.
Gouda originally meant cheese from the region around the town of Gouda, southwest of Amsterdam. Visit Gouda on a Thursday morning in summer when the age-old cheese market still takes place. The South Holland province is the main producer of this type of cheese, but other geographic areas in the Netherlands also make Gouda. The primary characteristic is the use of whole milk with no fat skimmed off.
Edam vs Gouda Cheese
Next, proceed to Edam, the other main type of Dutch cheese. In the U.S., Edam tends to mean a waxed 2-4 pound cheese ball with a red coating. Edam cheese balls can vary from 1-6.5 kilograms and have only their natural deep yellow appearance when sold in the Netherlands. Edam is noticeably drier, lighter, and tarter than the Gouda.
Edam differs from Gouda because it has a lower fat content, about 40 percent. This tradition started in North Holland when the fat from the night milk of the cows was skimmed off to make butter. The remaining skim milk was mixed with the morning cow milking to develop a cheese with lower fat content and a more intrusive taste.
Like Gouda, Edam originally meant a cheese from the Edam area north of Amsterdam, but now means a style of cheese-making that can also be practiced in other parts of the country. Fat content is the defining characteristic. The Edam region is worth a day of exploring. In summer, choose Friday because the town of Alkmaar, near Edam, has a colorful cheese auction. Edam was the port from which this North Holland cheese was exported to the world.
Edam cheese can age for a long time without deteriorating. In 1956 an Edam was found at the South Pole, a relic of the ill-fated Scott expedition of 1912. The cheese had become very sharp because of the natural aging process, but had not spoiled by moldering.
Sample also other specialty Dutch cheeses.
Cumin cheese is a 20-40 percent fat cheese flavored with cumin seeds, which gives the cheese a piquant flavor. As this cheese ages, the seeds draw out whey from the curds, so Cumin cheese has a drier texture than Gouda or Edam. Cumin cheese was so popular around the city of Leiden that today “Leiden cheese” means “Cumin cheese” on a label sent to the U.S. Sometimes, however, you will also find Gouda or Edam with cumin added as a flavor.
Clove cheese is another Dutch specialty, although seldom available now. The Frisian people of northeast Netherlands developed this cheese, using cloves as a flavoring, sometimes accompanied by cumin. Since cloves resemble nails, the cheese is labeled as “Nail cheese” or “Nagelkaas.” The Clove cheese has a pronounced spicy taste, so a small slice suffices.
Some cheese sellers stock intriguing goat cheeses, especially from Drenthe or from Limburg, which is noted for its pungent cheese. One sheep cheese comes from Texel Island. It takes about 10 units of milk to make one unit of cheese, and cows yield about 6,000 liters of milk per year, compared to a sheep or goat’s 500-800 liters. Another interesting Dutch cheese is a soft, high-fat cheese called Kernhem. The Dutch temperament, which favors established tradition rather than experimentation, originally described this cheese as “hanging on the knife,” which was perceived as an undesirable characteristic. Creamy French cheeses, with their higher fat content, are not widely popular in the Netherlands, where a drier, cutting cheese is synonymous with “cheese.”
Because all Dutch cows eat similar, lush vegetation at the same latitude, the taste of Dutch cheese tends to be uniform and predictable for the different types. This contrasts with French cheeses, where the differing grasses and extensive variation in herbs create sharp variations in taste.
A small percent of all Dutch cheese is made at specialized, boutique cheese farms. The rest is manufactured in large factories with milk collected from farmers. The process is nearly the same in both situations and the scale of the small farm is more manageable to comprehend, as well as more congenial to visit. There is one important difference in technique, however, which connoisseurs insist is important. The “Farmer cheese” or “Boerenkaas” is made from raw milk and always bears a square label. Cheese factories are required to pasteurize their milk and use a round label. Some argue that the Farm cheese has a livelier, more varied taste because of the bacteria that survive in unpasteurized milk.
Cheese Auctions: Gouda vs Alkmaar Markets
Beyond Amsterdam, the two interesting summertime cheese auctions (Thursday Gouda, Friday Alkmaar) are only an hour away by train or by rental car. The auctions are both a show for the traveler, inspired by local pride, and an actual auction of cheese in the time-honored manner. Arrive by 10 a.m. to see the action.
At Alkmaar there are four Cheese Porter Guilds, each with distinctive colors. The porters carry 80 round Edam cheeses on long wooden sleds by means of slings, with four men to a sled. Professional buyers burrow deep into the cheeses with a small tool and remove a core of cheese for tasting. After tasting and feeling the cheese for texture, they place their bids.
At Gouda the cheese auction is exclusively Farmer Cheese, which is brought to town in wooden carts. White-smocked buyers review the cheese and engage in a hand-slapping bidding interchange with the farmer. When the price is established, the cheese is taken to the weigh house.
Besides the cheese auctions, both towns are interesting to explore on foot. Alkmaar’s monuments include the St. Lawrence Church and attractive side streets with old houses. At Alkmaar there is also a museum to cheesemaking. Gouda boasts the oldest Town Hall in the country, from 1450, and St. John’s Church, which has some of the finest stained glass windows in Europe. See especially window 25, which recalls the Relief of Leiden, breaking a Spanish siege. This event enabled the Netherlands to become independent from Spain. In the window you’ll see an image of William of Orange, the George Washington of the country. Gouda also nurtures a flourishing craft tradition, especially for pottery, silver, candles, tile, and wool. At either of these towns, or near Amsterdam, you can visit a cheese-making farm. VVV, the Dutch tourism authority, can help with details. VVV Gouda offers a well-organized post-market visit by boat to a cheese farm and then a walking tour of the city in the afternoon.
Visiting a Cheese Farm
Although most cheese is now made in huge factories, a tradition persists of small family farms making cheese. Clara Maria is one of these cheese farms. The farm is south of Amsterdam and is available for seeing the cheese-making process. The farm also functions as a clog making factory.
The full effect of a Clara Maria Cheese Farm visit, near Amsterdam, requires that you get up early for a complete tour. The farm is near Bovenkerk, south of the metropolis. They welcome the traveler for a full tour or a simple drop-in visit at any time during the day. Make a reservation at their website www.claramaria.nl.
As you ride by bus or rental car, especially through the early morning hours, you pass through a landscape diffused with shades of light that must have delighted and inspired Vermeer. Above you float the billowy clouds so prevalent in the landscape paintings of the Dutch 17th century masters. You pass fecund grasslands created by the frequent rains that the Dutch endure. Healthy, fat cows inhabit each small pasture. The Dutch have perfected a strain of cows, the Frisian, that is one of the most prolific milk bearers in the bovine world. Today these cows, along with Dutch cheeses, are exported all over the world, building other nations’ herds. One cow, Jopie 15, had the world record for milk production, 30.3 kilograms a day over an extended lactation period.
At 7 a.m. the farmer begins milking his 60 or so cows. All the cows are milked both morning and evening. A dairy farming vocation requires constant attention.
By 8 a.m. stainless steel pipes have carried about 900 liters of milk into a large vat, where it mixes with the milk from the night before. The farmer then brings this milk to 36 degrees centigrade by use of hot water pipes in the stainless steel jacket of the tank. Following this, he adds rennet, a laboratory-made equivalent of the extract from the membrane of a calf’s stomach, which causes the milk to coagulate into cheese. The farmer further adds a strain of bacteria that enhances the typical Gouda taste he favors.
The farmer has a good and prosperous life, but all members of the family must contribute each day to make the operation succeed.
By 10 a.m. the farmer is back in the cheese room for the actual cheese-making activity. Curds have formed, so the remaining water in the milk, the whey, is piped out to the young calves and the pigs.
At 11 a.m. the farmer installs a set of knives in the stainless steel tub. The knives cut the curds into small pieces. Then the curds are gathered in towels and put into cheese presses where the last whey is squeezed out. A Farmer Cheese label is placed in each press, indicating where, when, and by whom the cheese was made.
At noon the farmer pops the cheeses from their presses and places them in a salt brine solution for two hours. Then the work is over until evening. The brine gives the cheese a salty flavor, helps preserve it, and assists in forming a protective hard crust.
You finish by tasting, for a nominal fee, the cheese of that day, which is very soft and creamy, almost like cottage cheese. The farmer will decide later whether to sell the cheese as Young, Aged, or Very Aged Farmer Cheese. You may have a chance to taste his one- and three-year-old cheeses, which linger on the tongue with a tangy, nutty flavor in each crumb.
As you ride back to Amsterdam, meditate on what an old and honorable cheese-making tradition you have witnessed. As early as the ninth century the Dutch, living then on high land mounds because the sea still dominated the country, were domesticating cows and producing cheese. Charlemagne engaged in butter and cheese trade with these proto-Dutchmen. The trade flourishes today all over the world for Gouda and Edam, two gustatory pleasures.
Netherlands: If You Go
For more information, contact the Netherlands Board of Tourism, www.goholland.com.
When you arrive in Amsterdam, the tourism office (called the VVV), can assist you with information, hotel bookings, and tour plans. The main VVV office is at the railroad station.
Transportation within Amsterdam is easy. A train takes you directly from the airport to central Amsterdam. From there a tram or taxi can take you to your hotel. Within the city, a tram, bus, or taxi can take you any distance too far to walk. For travel throughout the country, the train system is excellent. For maximum freedom when exploring the countryside, get a rental car.