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Say Cheese! A visit to Alkmaar Cheese Market

Posted on May 11, 2024 by

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Say cheese, say Alkmaar! – words you can see on the pavement on small triangles resembling a cheese piece, all around the city centre of Alkmaar. Alkmaar has been long known for its cheese market – first as a place with a prolific market, and then as a tourist attraction.

Welcome to the Alkmaar Cheese Market, a delightful corner of the Netherlands where cheese is more than just food—it’s tradition, it’s culture, it’s a vibrant celebration! Every Friday, from April until September, the Waagplein in Alkmaar becomes a stage where cheese carriers in white uniforms and coloured hats transport wheels of cheese on wooden racks, recreating a centuries-old Dutch tradition. There are also evening cheese markets on each Tuesday in July and August from 19.00 until 21.00, for those who can’t attend in the morning.

Situated north of Amsterdam, Alkmaar offers more than just an iconic cheese market, but also scenic canals and historic cobbled streets, so a trip to the market must be completed with a visit of the city and maybe a boat tour on the narrow canals.

Alkmaar cheese market - cheese carriers

History of Alkmaar Cheese Market

The cheese market of Alkmaar is the oldest and biggest of the Netherlands. We don’t know for sure when the first cheese market took place; the first official record of the market dates from 1622, but there are records of a Cheese Carrier’s Guild being founded in 1593, so there must have been markets held around that time as well.

Alkmaar was granted weighing rights and a weighing scale in 1365, and in time, this number increased to four. The square where the cheese market was held for hundreds of years had to expand a couple of times to make space for the growing market, with houses in the area being demolished to allow the expansion.

Nowadays, there is no actual trade being done at the market; it’s merely a blend of heritage and theatrics, a piece of the past that is brought to life for the enjoyment of tourists. However, the Cheese Carrier’s Guild takes their activity seriously. The guild comprises 30 men and a cheese master, all strong men who can carry the cheese racks which weight over 100 kg.

The Cheese Carriers Guild

The cheese master is the head of the guild, and the other members are divided into four groups. These groups are called ”vemen”. Each veem has its own cheese scale in the Waaggebouw where the tasman puts the weights on the scale, and their own colour, which you can see in the hats they are wearing (green, red, blue, yellow). The cheese master has an orange hat. A few funny things about the cheese carriers:

  • Each of them is given a nickname when joining the guild, and they address each other by this.
  • They have to pay a fine if they are late to the market
  • Cheese carriers are now allowed to swear. So if an accident occurs, they must yell ”owl!”.

What you’ll see at the market

Although the cheese market starts at 10.00am, the preparations start at 7.00 am., when trucks full of cheese wheels drive into the square and the cheese is unloaded. Around 2400 wheels are arranged in rows in the Waagplein, all Gouda and Edam cheese. No, there is no Alkmaar cheese here. Alkmaar is only selling the cheese, not producing it. At 9.45, the Cheese Father calls for all cheese carriers and accounts for each of them, then they discuss any special things that need to be taken into consideration that day.

At 10.00, with the ring of the bell, the market is officially starting. After that, until 13.00, the market is buzzing with activity. The cheese carriers carry the cheese barrows using a rhythm that is called the ”cheese carrier dribble” – it’s difficult to keep the balance of the barrow with all those kilograms of deliciousness on them! Cheese inspectors check the quality of the cheese, by drilling holes into it and then it can be ”sold”. There’s a spoken presentation for the visitors, given in Dutch, English, German, French and Spanish.

The deal is made with a series of claps. The cheese is then carried to the Weighouse where is weighed by the ”tasman” (translated as the ”bag man” – the name comes from the bag of money they carry around their waist).

Fun fact: if you want, you might be allowed to try carry the cheese yourself, and see if you are fit to become a cheese carrier – or you can let them carry you on the cheese racks in place of the cheese! In the Waag (at the base of the tower), people can be weighed on the cheese scale if they want to find out their value in cheese kilograms.

All throughout the market, there are ”cheese girls and boys”, dressed in traditional clothes, walking around selling bags of cheese (with smaller wheels than the ones being sold) or taking pictures with the visitors.

Cheese gondola Alkmaar

A cheese gondola can be spotted on the canal next to the market – a reminder of how cheese used to be transported in the past.

All around the market, there is another market where a few stalls sell food and handmade items. I love the cheese raclete and the poffertjes with chocolate and cherries.

 

Various facts about the market

People from Alkmaar were given the nickname ”kaaskoppen” – not a very polite one at its beginnings and one that maybe you want to avoid nowadays as well. The story goes that the name originated in battle against the Spanish in the 80 Year War. Due to the shortage of helmets, they wore wooden cheese buckets – hence the name.

The Dutch eat an average of 17-22 kilos of cheese per person per year (depending on the source being cited).

Cheese is one of the largest exports products of the Netherlands, with around 900 million kg of Dutch cheese exported every year.

If you are vegan and hope to see this kind of traditions end – you might have to wait for a while. The Dutch (and the rest of the world) love their cheese. However, the good news is that vegan cheese is on the rise in the Netherlands, with a great variety of amazing vegan cheeses being found in the supermarkets and the small shops. Unfortunately, the stalls selling cheese sandwiches at the cheese market in Alkmaar didn’t think to consider offering vegan options (yet). Maybe in the future.

How to get to Alkmaar

You can get to Alkmaar by train. From Amsterdam, the journey takes 35 minutes. You can also come by car, and park in one of the many parking spots around the city (finding a parking spot on the streets of the city center would prove almost impossible).

Make sure to reserve time for visiting the city as well. At the cheese market you’ll spend maximum one hour, after which you’ll want to enjoy other things that the city has to offer: roam around the beautiful streets (don’t miss Baangracht, Kooltuin, the view from Appelsteegbrug), do a boat tour, eat cake and coffee at the Sweets Antiques (a museum shop).

Stay tuned for more and follow Amsterdamian on Instagram and Facebook for daily stories about life in the Netherlands. Please share this post if you liked it!
Don’t forget to check out my photo book: Amsterdam Through the Seasons!

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