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Back in June Ash and I were able to visit the town of Alkmaar in The Netherlands. Our old university friend, Rory, who grew up in Haarlem outside of Amsterdam, which is about a 30 min train ride from the Alkmaar, told us about the famous Alkmaar cheese market that happens every Friday between April and September every year. We both decided that this market was a must visit; honestly, who doesn’t love cheese especially, cheese from the Netherlands? If you have never had Dutch gouda then I suggest you go out and indulge in this treat. Let’s just say that Ash and I have a weakness for this delicious dairy product. It was decided, Ashley and I were going to visit this cheese market.
This is an early morning affair and we’re not the greatest at early mornings especially when it’s rainy outside which seemed to be a common occurrence while we were in Holland. Our alarm went off and the snooze button quickly followed but slowly but surely we pulled ourselves out of bed. We arrived at the train station around 08:30 and were off to Alkmaar. If you have not had the pleasure of using the train system in Holland, I feel like you are missing out on a piece of perfection. I love traveling by trains; it’s my favorite mode of transportation. I used to take the Surfliner that goes along the coast of California all the time when I was younger. I just find it relaxing and enjoy being able to to appreciate the scenery. The trains in Holland are easy to figure out as they are very user friendly. My only suggestion is to make sure you are on time; these trains never run late. This is not my beloved Italy were the trains run on Italian time.
Ash and I hopped on the train and were off. It is always exciting going somewhere new especially when you know that it’s going to involve eating. The cheese market is definitely touristy as people from all over the world come and visit in the summer. Even though there are tourists, this is a very serious and traditional market. The Alkmaar market has been taking place in Waagplein square since the 1593, the same year the cheese bearer’s guild was founded. The Dutch are very proud of their tradition in the cheese world, so don’t let the tourists throw you off.
The cheese festival starts with the opening ceremony that takes place every Friday during the season. The ceremony kicks off with a welcome at 09:50 and I suggest getting there at least an hour early so you can get a good view of the market. However due to being allergic to mornings we arrived exactly at 09:50 so our view of the market was a little limited. They do have a big screen that films the entire event which ends around 12:30.
You might be wondering why is everybody coming to to observe a market. This is not your normal market that you might be thinking, although you can go around to the stands to try and buy cheese and other goodies like stroopwafels. The main event though is the inspection and the weighing of the cheese.
Still couldn’t say no to just a few Dutch pancakes 🙂
There’s a lot going on at this historic cheese market. At 07:00 am the kaaszetters (setters) put out all the wheels of gouda that are going to be sold that day. All the cheese has to be set out by 09:30 and by then the cheese carriers have to be present at the Waaggebouw (weigh house). If they are late they will be fined and will start out at the weighing stations or the stocks. Cheese carriers get paid for how much cheese the carry back and forth. So if you are weighing cheese you are losing out on your pay.
The Cheese Father is in charge of the market. In the morning he calls roll of the cheese carrier guilds to make sure everybody is present and ready to work. He also gives them information such as important figures who are going to be present as well as how much cheese in metric tons is going to be at the market. He is the boss, so what he says goes.
The Market officially opens at 10:00am with the ringing of the bell which is rung by a figure invited by the city’s municipal body. When the market opens the traders and the samplers go to work. The traders start making deals with the buyers as samplers test the cheese for quality.
The traders make deals by tradition of clapping hands together with buyers. I thought it was a cool inside handshake but in fact they clap hands together yelling out prices until a final clap seals the deal. The buyers by batches of cheese by kilos. To be honest I am not completely sure how it works but it is a pretty cool thing to watch.
After the deals are done, the cheese carriers get to work carrying the cheese off to be weighed at the Waaggebouw. They wear traditional garments of the cheese guilds and carry the cheese using a wooden barrow. They carry four wheels of gouda at a time weighing approximately 130 kilos; it’s not light. The cheese is carried to the scales where the cheese is immediately weighed and recorded by the tasman (purse man), who records and collects the payments. Once the cheese is weighed he marks it and the cheese carriers take the cheese off to the buyer’s lorries. This goes until the market closes and the cheese is all sold off.
The cheese carriers are the people who are fun to watch. As I said, they wear traditional clothing and carry the cheese in pairs using a the wooden barrow that hangs between them. They all run in a special traditional cheese carriers run called the dribble. While Ash and I were watching we saw that a girl from the crowd was able to carry some cheese. I got an instant urge to see if I could also help out. I mean it is not everyday you get to take part in a tradition from 1593! I thought that would be a cool experience.
So, I ran off towards the Waaggebouw kind of ditching Ashley. She caught up with me but I was completely unaware as I was so focused on accomplishing my newest item on my bucket list, carrying heavy wheels of cheese in Holland. I found a hole in the crowd and got myself close to the barrier and waited for my chance to get one of the carriers attention. It did not take long to get their attention and ask if I could learn how to carry cheese. I was a little afraid of being shot down because I was not a pretty girl but rejection was not in the cards. The guy was happy to get me involve, so he waved me over the barrier.
I was so excited; I felt like a kid in a candy shop. I mean this is why I am here, I am here to learn and have new experiences. I hopped over the fence and got a little tripped up in my rush but I recovered quickly and was ready to learn. Introductions and a quick tutorial was made and then we waited for our turn. I’m not going to say I was born for this but I could see myself as a future cheese carrier. I put on the ropes that go over the shoulder and was given the front of the barrow. The man counted down and we lifted the cheese off the scale and next thing I knew I was doing the cheese carrier dirrible. I was complimented by the announcer of the market on my run and I have to say my head swelled a little bit. However, I am sure she was just being kind to the tourist. We dropped the cheese off at the lorries and then it was back to pick up more cheese to be weighed. This is where my confidence got the best of me and got tangled up in the barrow ropes. Once they had me untangled we were off again. I was getting back into stride until I almost overran the scales but it was all figured out and my cheese carrying days came to an end.
It was such a blast and all the carriers were very friendly and welcoming. They teased the rookie a little for overrunning the scale but it was all in good fun. I shook their hands and thanked them profusely and it was over. What a treat and I had a smile from ear to ear. My day was complete; nothing could put me in a downer not even the rain. I hopped back over the barrier and met up with Ashley who managed to snap a few photos of me.
The cheese market ended and everybody started to go home as the rain started to fall. I was still running on the high from my experience and was busy trying to figure out how to make this my profession. Ash and I bought a few wheels of cheese, ate a lot more samples and then headed back to the train station. As we sat on the train heading back to Rory’s house I thought about the day and everything I learned. This is why I’m traveling, because I’m able to do things I have never done before, to be able to put myself out there and learn and experience life. This is still one of my favorite experiences of the entire trip and really recommend going out and visiting these markets. Try and carry some cheese; trust me it will be something you will never forget. Even though the event is filled with tourists, it is a must visit. I know Ash and I were glad that we were not scared away, otherwise I would have never got my shot as a professional cheese carrier!
And check out our video of our experience there! Be kind, its my first one attempt at editing video 🙂
I hope you have enjoyed my article. Have you ever visited Alkmaar? Have you carried and weighed cheese? Please let me know your experience in the comment section below I would love to hear all about it. If you are interest in going make sure to check out the Alkmaar Cheese Market website for information.
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