Alkmaar cheese market has been functional since the middle ages. What you see today is a re-enactment of this traditional cheese market but it is well worth a visit.
Netherlands is very famous for its cheese. Many of the cheeses from this region actually derive their name from the village or town where they are made. Some of these towns still conduct cheese markets in the traditional style, Alkmaar being one of them. Mind you, these cheese markets are sort of like a show that is put up for the visitors and tourists. Nevertheless it is a fascinating spectacle! Another thing to note is that these cheese markets are only conducted from April to September.
We decided to check out the Alkmaar cheese market prior to heading to Antwerp for our Easter weekend trip. It was a bit out of the way for us but given that Alkmaar holds its cheese market only on Fridays this was our best chance of visiting it without having to take a day off. Lucky for us, this was the first week in 2015 when the cheese market was being kick-started for the year. So we got to see some additional fanfare and pomp at the events.
On reaching Alkmaar railway station, we found abundant signs directing us to the cheese market. This left little doubt in our mind that this is by far the city’s biggest call to fame. The walk to the cheese market will take 15 – 20 minutes depending upon your pace. On the way to the market we saw some girls dressed in traditional Dutch costumes selling some souvenirs. We were in time for the market to start but not in time to stand in front row. So as always I had to crane my neck and keep shifting my position to catch glimpses of the happenings. This is an usual occurrence given that I am quite a petite lady living in the land of tall Dutchies. Thankfully they had a big screen telecasting the event as well.
Start of the market
It all started with the mayor hitting the gong and declaring the market open. Then came the representative parties from the buyer and seller to decide the price of the cheese being traded that day. They had a unique way of deciding upon the price. For every bid they kept clapping their hand and shouting the price. The final price was sealed with a hand shake. There were even cheese samplers examining the cheese being sold in the market to determine its quality. They scooped out the cheese using a special twirly thing and crumbled it, smelled it, inspected the holes and what not. Believe me, there is more to determining the quality of cheese than what meets the eye. During the entire event the presenter explained the happenings and the history of the market in a few different languages. The Dutch media was also covering this event in full force so naturally there were also some speeches and interviews. There were a couple of entertainers on stilts dressed in fancy clothing. The kids loved these guys and no doubt I had no trouble viewing their antics either.
Once the price is finalized, the job of the cheese porters or cheese carriers starts. The cheese carriers wear a straw hat with a colourful ribbon across it. The colour of the ribbon on their hat determines which forwarding company they belong to. These guys have the tough job of taking the cheese wheels from the market square to the weighing station at the Waag(weighing house). Once the cheese is weighed they have to carry it to the wooden cart which takes it to the loading vehicle. These days it is loaded into trucks and vans while in the olden days it was loaded into boats. Then the cheese would be transported via the country’s extensive waterways to the neighbouring cities. The cheese carriers have the toughest job, no doubt. They carry about 8 truckles of cheese on a wooden barrow. So including the weight of barrow that is more than 100 kilos between two guys. They walk in certain rythym to make sure the cheese doesn’t roll off but we did see that happening once. They kept making their rounds without any visible signs of tiredness. Seeing them make a run for it again and again was the most fun part of the market. In my opinion they are the stars of the cheese market!
Everyone has an assigned duty in the cheese market. Its the kaaszetters (cheese setters) job to ensure that the cheese truckles are perfectly displayed before the market kickstarts at 10 am. You can recognize the kaaszetters by their blue shirts. Then there are these guys called the “ingooiers” which literally means throwers. They toss the weighed cheese from the barrows into wooden handcarts and take it to the trucks for loading. You can recognize the tasman (purse-man) at the scales by his leather purse around his waist. I think his name gives you pretty good clue about his responsibility in the market. The organized Dutch have had a guild for the men working at the cheese market since the middle ages. The cheese carriers guild is headed by the “cheese father” and you can recognize him by his orange hat and the cane. The cheese men are a stickler for tradition. If you are interested in finding out more interesting traditions and history related to Alkmaar cheese market, do check this website. “Cheesemaids” or girls dressed in traditional Dutch costume come around to sell cheese and other souvenirs to the visitors. They also sell the magazine called “kaasexpres”. Need i say what the magazine is about 😉
Some people in the front row started to leave and finally i had my chance to capture some more pictures without any obstructions. The cheese carriers still continued running back and forth. But it seemed that all the major events were over. Besides Sridhar’s stomach was already grumbling and i was happy with my pictures. So we didn’t wait for the market to finish but decided to check out the old town. As i was busy window shopping, Sridhar was doing what he likes doing best, checking out the restaurants & cafes. After our much needed lunch break we explored Alkmaar a little more, with renewed vigour. The cheese market closes at 12 and Waagplein is cleared of all the cheese. All the restaurants and cafes in the square then extend their terraces to offer their customers some much need sun and al-fresco dining. With the cheese market almost coming to a close we happily headed back to the railway station. After all our weekend trip to Antwerp was just about to begin!
Practical tips for visiting Alkmaar cheese market
- If you are keen on photographing the event make sure you are on Waagplein by at least 9.30 or earlier. You will also be the lucky ones getting to sample some fine cheese for free if you make it to the front row.
- Getting there by train: Trains from Amsterdam leave every 15 mins. Trains going to Den Helder also go via Alkmaar. So the destination of the train will not always be Alkmaar. The journey itself takes roughly 35 minutes. This is a good site to plan your train trip.
- Walk from Alkmaar railway station to Waagplein will take about 15-20 minutes
- The instructions in the market are repeated twice for the tourists. But it is more fun to be there from the start.
- Alkmaar has a very charming old town. Do take some time to explore the narrow alleys dotted with vintage shops and boutiques selling handmade jewellery, artisan stuff and the likes.
- If you are interested in knowing more about cheese making and its history, do check out the cheese museum located at the Waag.
- Other towns in Netherlands like Gouda(thursday) and Edam(wednesday) also conduct a cheese market but on a different day during the week. But these markets are also conducted only in the summer months. Do check the schedule before you plan a visit.