Trading cheese in Waagplein square began in 1365 and has continued ever since. At the time, the city only had one cheese weighing scale, so the cheese makers would all arrive at the square to have their cheeses weighed for trade. In 1582, the city converted the chapel into the official municipal weigh-house, which is now the Kaasmuseum (Cheese Museum). This is the beautiful backdrop you see in most pictures.
The cheeses come from all the different regions around Alkmaar, but only three types are traded here. The yellow wheels are Edam, Gouda, and Leidse (Leiden). Leidse cheese is specifically referred to as Leiden’s cheese because it has a distinctly unique flavour created by Leiden cheesemakers. The cheese is flavoured with higher concentrations of cumin and is a true speciality of the area.
Unique Things to See and Do in/near Alkmaar Cheese Market
- Holland Cheese Museum
- National Beer Museum, “De Boom”
- Sint Laurenskerk
The Alkmaar Traditions
Every segment of the cheese market is carried out by different roles, from set up to take down. Setting the cheese out in the square is done by the “kaaszetters” or cheese setters. They start early in the morning, 7 am, and must be finished by 9:30 am for the inspections. Come 10 am the cheese market is open and ready for trade.
The inspectors look at everything, the crumbliness of the cheese, the smell, texture, and, of course, the taste. They have a specific tool for extracting samples without damaging the cheese’s integrity. They are also looking for the different moisture contents of the cheese, which can be heard by knocking on their exteriors as well as through taste and touch.
Inside the Waaggebouw (weighing house) the cheese porters gather for roll call and are given their instructions for the day. Don’t be fooled by the carefreeness of the day. All the laughter and good spirits are genuine, but there are plenty of strict rules. Everything from no drinking, no tardiness, no smoking, and no profanities. If they break a rule they could be subjected to a fine that is paid to “provost marshal.” The fines are a form of shaming, but the funds are put to good causes by the guild. Watching the “kaasdragers” run around in their pure white attire with straw hats carrying 130 kilos of cheese on wooden barrows suspended from their backs is truly quite the sight.
Bargaining between the trader and buyer is also unique to Holland, in which they clap each other’s hand until the price has been deemed as “fair.” The last clap stands as the final bid. Once the price and the weights are agreed upon, the Kaasdragers load up the cheese and carry it off to the wagon lorries for delivery.
This is one of those unique “witnessing” experiences, similar to events like the Changing of the Guards in London, where you, the bystander, watch the events unfold on the sidelines. The Alkmaar traditions are historical events that speak volumes of the customs of Holland’s past, so much so, that it is worth experiencing at least once in your lifetime. There are plenty of cheeses to sample and many sights to see in Alkmaar – you won’t be disappointed.
Getting to Alkmaar Cheese Market
The market is held on Fridays from 10 am to 12:30 pm, in the town of Alkmaar, just north of Amsterdam. Travelling there takes about 35 minutes by train from Amsterdam’s Central Station. Taking the train is the best way to go, but if you should decide to drive, you’ll need to leave early to find a parking spot at one of the local parkades, and then you can walk anywhere from there.
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