Say cheese and pose for a picture at Alkmaar cheese market, the biggest cheese market in the Netherlands
I love cheese, usually the stronger the better, so on a recent visit to the Netherlands I felt I was long overdue a visit to Alkmaar cheese market in Holland. A whopping 26,000 kg of cheese is weighed out and sent off to be sold every week at Alkmaar, I’m told making Alkmaar is the biggest cheese market in the Netherlands, if not the world.
The biggest cheese market in Holland, and also the oldest cheese market in Holland, began in Alkmaar in 1539. Today Alkmaar cheese market is pretty much run for tourists, it’s Alkmaar’s most famous attraction. But don’t let that put you off checking it out as it’s still fun to watch men and women dressed up in traditional Dutch costume racing around with cheese.
Alkmaar cheese market isn’t year-round. Starting each year in April, it’s held every Friday at Waagplein (the main square) and runs until early September. The action kicks off at 10am when a bell is rung to signify the opening of the market and then the fun begins. First the price of the Gouda is decided per kilo so when the whole cheese is put onto the scales people know how many kilos worth they’re buying.
Each lot of cheese is weighed on a set of scales inside the weighing house. Once it’s been weighed a pair of sturdy men, dressed in traditional costume, pick up the cheese in something resembling a wooden sledge and take it off to be loaded up into waiting carts. I was surprised at just how spritely these guys are. They run pretty fast with the cheese, possibly because it’s so heavy they don’t want to hang around with it. I had to dodge out of the way quite a few times to avoid getting mowed down by them!
Once the cheese is loaded onto the carts the men pick up a new load of Gouda and run back with it to the weighing house to start the process all over again. There are quite a few pairs of men, making their cheese relay races a real spectacle to experience. The cheese on the carts is then ready to be distributed and sold throughout the country. As you might expect the Netherlands used to be home to 120 big cheese factories. Now only two now remain.
To make sure the cheese is of the highest quality there are inspectors who go round and check it. They told me that the outside of the cheese should have no stripes or irregularities on it. To see if the inside is up to scratch they make a hole and pull out a piece of cheese to verify the taste, texture and consistency as there shouldn’t be too many holes in the middle of a Gouda.
I’d read people complaining on TripAdvisor that the Alkmaar cheese market gets really rammed and it’s so busy you end up getting crushed or can’t see anything. I was lucky enough to be allowed inside the main area by the tourist board to take pictures but when we were there everyone in the crowd outside seemed quite content. I didn’t see any pushing or shoving and people all seemed to have decent views of the cheese market in action. We did get there quite early though so if you are concerned about being able to see it’s probably worth getting there before 10am to try and get a prime spot. Another alternative is to go as part of a group or tour. It may cost you a bit more but it does guarantee you access inside the barrier which will give you an advantage when it comes to taking photos (as you can see from my pics here).
Alkmaar cheese market runs from 10am to 12.30pm and if seeing all of the cheese whets your appetite there’s plenty of Dutch cheese available for sale to take home with you. Lining the square are numerous food stalls, many of which sell a selection of weird and wonderful flavoured cheeses. These include everything from nettle cheese to mustard cheese, ginger cheese, wasabi cheese and various herb cheeses.
Located just beside the cheese market, Alkmaar is also home to the Dutch cheese museum. Here you can learn all about how cheese is made and there are rooms that contain cheese memorabilia. It’s also worth noting that the cheese on display isn’t real – so don’t try to eat it.
Seeing all that cheese definitely made me hungry so we decided to stop for lunch at a lovely cafe/ restaurant called Hof van Sonoy. A former convent, this Alkmaar restaurant has a large courtyard and while the lunch menu is pretty basic (sandwiches, soup and eggs in different forms) it’s a great place to sit and chill out on a sunny day. I’d read that you can climb up the imposing tower of the Hof van Sonoy. A quick check with our waiter confirmed this so we headed up its spiral staircase for views looking out across Alkmaar. It’s also possible to hire out the tower for an exclusive private dining experience too.
The city of Alkmaar itself is worth a visit. Easily accessible from Amsterdam (it’s about 30 mins on the train) you can happily spend a day wandering along its canals, soaking up Alkmaar’s relaxed atmosphere. And it’s surprisingly good for shopping too. The Alkmaar tourist board has a walking tour (€2.50) you can pick up from the tourist information office (or I believe you can also download an app) that includes some Alkmaar hidden gems along with the history of Alkmaar’s main monuments and points of interest.
A trip to Holland wouldn’t be complete without the sighting of a windmill and Alkmaar is no exception. You can find a windmill along the river bank close to the city centre. Cheesy it may be but a visit to Alkmaar cheese market and the city of Alkmaar is one of Holland’s hidden gems and makes for an interesting side trip from Amsterdam.