Themes will often emerge from a trip long after you've arrived home. It takes looking back to fully grasp the places you traveled and can sometimes require a bit more research to crystallize. Now that I've been home from my trip to Holland for a bit, I'm really starting to understand the general themes that run through the veins of the Dutch countryside and the people within. After a bit of research, I've really realized that innovation and an entrepreneurial spirit are fundamental tenets in the Dutch book of life.
In an age where technology is rapidly moving forward, it can be hard to look back and see the past as "innovative." We all had to start somewhere, but it's easy to forget that beginning. I wouldn't consider the Alkmaar Cheese Market the beginning, but it did have a large hand in making the Dutch economy a powerhouse.
Agricultural History in Holland
While the Romans were actively colonizing much of what is Europe today, Holland was relatively unattractive due to its marshy grounds and peat bogs. There was a small bit of dairy farming happening in settlements on dune ridges, and the farmers were practicing a bit of transhumance where the cows grazed on the coastal, maritime, pastures in the summer and moved to higher ground in the winter. In the eleventh through fourteenth centuries, the labor-intensive reclamation of the wetlands began with the creation of a network of drainage ditches and low dikes. This allowed for the ground to dry out enough to plant bread cereals, and grain production skyrocketed. This new influx of money and industry grew new settlements in the marshy regions, and Holland's strategic location on the North Sea promoted growth on the coastal towns and cities.
In two centuries though, the production of grain cereals collapsed due to rising sea levels and the convex depression that a drained peat bog produced. The Dutch, using their innovative spirit, then developed the polder system where they enclosed their fields with dikes and pumped out excess water to create permanent drylands. Making use of structures already on the land, they turned the windmills that were used to mill grains into pumps for water removal. The higher water table was still unable to support wheat production, so farmers took to other crops like barley and hops which in turn created a rise of artisan brewing. Others decided that dairying was the way to go with cities growing and prospering nearby.
The Dutch then faced a local grain shortage leading to the importation of grains from France and the Baltic region. To be a significant player in the trading world, the Dutch needed a high-value export of which they found in their newly expanded production of beer and cheese. Farmers continued to innovate in many ways. A few examples include specializing in only a few kinds of cheese, developing new types of equipment to allow for larger scales of production, and they purposefully designed cheese to withstand the rigors of shipping and handling. The farms grew from self-sufficiency to more extensive, and more specialized, requiring more goods and services to be used. This growth in cheese production also required more complex marketing and distribution which lead to the creation of markets like Alkmaar.
The History of Alkmaar Cheese Market
The Alkmaar Cheese Market had its first written mention in 1408. Cheese trading started taking hold in 1365, making Alkmaar one of the primary markets of its kind. It saw many iterations over the years, but at its heyday, in the 17th century, the Alkmaar scales weighed between 6-7 million pounds of cheese before exporting to places like Italy, the Iberian Peninsula, Germany, France, England, West Indies, and North America.
With all of this cheese making its way out of the country, a need quickly grew for a systematic method of getting the cheese bought and sold. It was common practice to establish a guild for every professional group, so the Cheese Carriers Guild was born!
Established in 1593, the Cheese Carriers Guild created a robust system of trading while putting on quite a show for the locals to watch. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the markets ran up to 4 times a week, so this system also created a viable income for those in the Guild. While the Guild is still active to this day, they now are all volunteers donating their time and energy to tell the story of the past.
Cheese Carriers Guild
The Guild consisted of 30 men and the Cheese Father. There are four groups called Forwarding Companies, and they are each represented with a different color. Red, Green, Yellow, and Blue. Each forwarding company consists of 6 cheese carriers and one Tasman (purse man). The Tasman is the eldest cheese carrier in years of service and is in charge of weighing the cheese on the scales. It takes two years as a temporary worker to establish a spot within the Guild though there is no guarantee of a place since Cheese Carriers are in the Guild until death.
A deal for the sale of cheese is made and sealed with a series of claps with the last clap sinching the sale and price of the cheese. From there, the cheese carriers load the cheese on to a barrow that is balanced between two carriers. It is held on by two leather straps, and the carriers must run in a synchronized rhythm offset from each other to counterbalance the weight of the barrow. This is known as the "Cheese Carriers Dribble." When carrying at least 8 wheels of gouda at about 287 lbs, it's helpful to have a system to get them from one place to the next.
The cheese carriers abide by many strict rules, and if they disobey the rules, they can be fined. Things, like being late, having a dirty outfit, or cursing on the market floor, can all result in such a fine. Each carrier is given a nickname, and it usually refers to a trait that the carrier displays. "The interpreter" for a carrier that speaks many languages, " the valve" for a carrier that talks a lot and happens to work on engines, etc. The men get together the Friday before Christmas to receive payment which consists of 5 Euros, two almond paste cakes for the wife for keeping his suit spotless, and white bread with butter for the children. It's a tight-knit group that genuinely cares about the rich history of Dutch cheese.
The Alkmaar market is no longer the main trading floor for cheese, but it still holds a special place in the Dutch landscape. People from all over the world come to watch the display and to learn a bit more about Dutch history. It's also a necessary time for the local businesses since the extra traffic on Friday mornings can make or break a week in these small shops. The streets line up with vendors selling their wares, and the cheese museum is bustling with people wanting to learn a bit more about the history of the market.
My Experience with Alkmaar
I'm the type of person that will show up early to an event to ensure that I get a decent seat. We arrived a bit before the scheduled activities, and I wasn't sure what we were in store for. I'll admit that I got a little anxious thinking we wouldn't have a great spot to take pictures from. Little did I know, we were honored guests of Beemster and had a front-row seat for the entire show! I was able to get some great pictures, and we received a personal tour of the Cheese Carriers house by the Cheese Father himself. We learned of the history of the Cheese Carriers Guild and got a few insights on what it looks like to be in a small space filled with a bunch of men. (Think whiskey bottles hidden in cabinets conveniently located for a quick pour) We were taken behind the scenes as the carriers brought the cheese in to be weighed and even had a chance for photos smack dab in the middle of the show. It was more than I ever could have imagined.
Thanks to Cheese Journeys, I was able to get the royal treatment and honored guest position. I would still recommend going even without that position but keep in mind you should get there early to obtain a spot. The show is totally worth it, and I think learning a bit more about Dutch history is an integral part of any Holland adventure.
To learn more about the Alkmaar Cheese Market, be sure to visit the website and plan your Friday morning around this fantastic show if you plan on visiting Holland.
Thanks to Cheese and Culture written by Paul Kindstedt for more information about the history of Dutch cheese.
So, now tell me, are you planning your Dutch holiday with a trip to the Alkmaar Cheese Market? Or have you already been? I'd love to know in the comments!
A Certified Cheese Professional living the cheesy life.