Just a short distance further beyond Zaanse Schans is a small Dutch town called Alkmaar, which during the summer turns into a traditional cheese market, every Friday. This Dutch town keeps the tradition alive of carrying, weighing and selling loads of Gouda cheese.
This special cheese weighing market has taken place every year from May until All Saint’s Day on Fridays since the 18th century. Originally, it took place four days a week, including Saturdays. Today, while it is still a matter of keeping the tradition alive, it has become an off the beaten track destination for those looking for something a little different other than checking out big cities like Amsterdam.
Before the market can officially open, the cheese is lined into rows upon rows of cheese in the main square of the town starting as early as 7am.
The market officially opens at 10am with a ringing of a bell by guests of the town of Alkmaar which can be anyone from Dutch artists, famous athletes or even foreign ambassadors. Soon after, a small procession of beating drubs and skilled flag wavers perform while walking through the rows of cheese.
Soon afterwards, there is the inspection of the cheese before it can start the price bargaining process. The inspection consists more than just simply looking at the rows of endless cheese. In fact, there are certain things to look for before a cheese can be sold. To start with, the cheese is actually knocked on before a small scoop of cheese is dug out for sampling. The cheese is crumbled between the fingers, smelled and finally tasted. But there are certain things that make a cheese worthy of being sold at the market. If a cheese has “eyes” (caused during the maturing process) evening spread out over the entire cheese, it is considered worthy. However, is this is not the case, it is not allowed to be sold at market.
Afterward, the price bargaining can begin between potential buyers. This process still follows a traditional format of good ol’ clapping of hands and shouting prices. The last clap wins the cheese.
Once the price of the cheese has been bargained, the weighing process can begin. The weighing of the cheese dates back to 1365 when the city only owned one scale. Today, there are four scales. There is a purse man who does the actual weighing of the cheese as well as a weighing master. This is observed by a public servant who observes the correct weight being given to the purchaser.
Finally, the part we have all been “weighting” for is the carrying of the cheese. After all, this is the true reason why people go to check out this weekly tradition is to glimpse men, dressed in snow white outfits topped with a colorful hat. This unique group of men are actually a part of a cheese guild with a cheese father leading the group of 30 men. What makes this group of men really special is that each man is given a unique nickname.
The cheese is transported with the help of two men per cheese barrow strapped on to the shoulders of each man and hangs low to the feet by running/walking in a special cheese carriers walk. Each barrow contains 8 Gouda cheeses weighing around 130 kilos (286lbs!!) One rule that cheese carriers MUST follow is absolutely no cursing during the cheese market. If a cheese falls from the cheese barrow, they must not curse but instead, they should yell, “OWL!”
All the cheese must be weighed and cleared out from the market by 12:30pm so that the town square can continue their normal services.
**Please excuse the quality of the photos as they were taken in 2008 while I was studying abroad. I hardly took any photos so some photos are from the Alkmaar Cheese Market website!**
After watching the entire cheese market process, my friends and I found ourselves inside the nearest cheese store, sampling some cheese. As we were naive then, we didn’t bother to buy any cheese to take home with us, but we did have fun trying to lift one large Gouda! They were pretty heavy weighing in at almost 30lbs (13.5kilos)!
Arriving by public transport
Trains from Amsterdam:
There is a direct connection to Alkmaar from Amsterdam Centraal Station,
with trains departing four times an hour.
Train from Den Helder/Hoorn/Haarlem:
There is a direct connection to Alkmaar,
with trains departing twice an hour.
Plan your train journey on www.ns.nl
Connexxion buses run to Alkmaar from coastal locations
such as Egmond aan Zee, Bergen and Schoorl.
Times and further details from the VVV.
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