Stuart Forster travels to the Netherlands to explore the Gouda Cheese Market.
Enjoy cheese and opportunities to gain insights into regional heritage? Then make a note to visit Gouda’s cheese market while visiting Gouda in the Netherlands.
On fine Thursday mornings from the beginning of April until the end of August (except Ascension Day), people from the Dutch city don traditional costumes to convey how the market was in bygone times. (It isn’t held in wet weather.) You’ll see about a dozen people dressed as farmers, cheese shop owners wearing white jackets and flat caps plus maids in lace bonnets and red aprons.
Traditional costumes and lots of cheese
Men recreate intense price negotiations between cheese-producing farmers and buyers. Staying true to the process used to agree on prices prior to computerisation, the men stand facing each other, between approximately 700 of the cheeses being traded. As the price fluctuates they slap hands. The dramatic scene was played out countless times over the centuries. Changes of even a duit, the smallest unit of Dutch currency in former times, could make a marked difference to the quality of life of a farmer’s family. When the men reach a mutually agreeable price they shake hands to seal their deal.
The city’s name is synonymous with one of the world’s most popular cheeses because farmers from outlying villages have been trading at its market since at least the 17th century. Some estimates suggest that more than half of all the cheese consumed around the world is Gouda in style. Cheese lovers in South Holland like to argue that the original is best and say it’s down to the lush, mineral-rich grass of fields near Gouda.
Insights into Gouda’s history
The cobbled marketplace is dominated by a Gothic town hall constructed in the mid-15th century after fire razed much of Gouda in 1438. It was built of stone, away from other buildings, to minimise the risk of damage by fire. The town hall provides an impressive backdrop to photos of the cheese market and its balcony – once used to hold public executions – gives fine views of wheels of yellow cheese laid out in lines below.
As you browse stalls, your eyes may be drawn to the carillon on the town hall’s east face. It depicts Floris V, who granted Gouda’s town charter in 1272. Mechanical figures circle the carillon two minutes after each half hour. The timing helps avoid a cacophonic clash with the bells of Sint-Janskerk.
Size isn’t everything but if you’ve got it, why not flaunt it, according to well-worn phraseology. Gouda’s residents certainly aren’t shy about promoting the fact they have the longest church in the Netherlands (measuring 123 metres). Once you’re finished at the market, or for respite from summer sunshine, it’s worth stepping inside to view the church’s 72 stained glass windows, several of which date from the 16th century.
Gouda’s Weigh House and museum
As Gouda grew, so too did the municipality’s privileges, including the right to weigh merchandise, including cheeses, and levy taxes. Only a handful of cities were permitted to do this, so it helped consolidate Gouda’s image as a thriving market city. The council wanted a building that would serve the practical purpose of housing scales and simultaneously impress onlookers. Consequently, the architect Pieter Post was commissioned to design the Goudse Waag, Gouda’s Weigh House, which opened in 1668.
The upper floors house a compact Cheese and Crafts Museum, providing an overview of the building’s long history and the process of making Gouda cheese via a film and artefacts collected from nearby farms. You can also see the original sculpture that once adorned the façade, ravaged by three centuries of weather and darkened by air pollution from industrial Europe’s chimneys. The scene depicts officials entering the weight of cheese changing hands into a ledger, so taxes could be collected.
Big cheeses and horse-drawn carts
On market days you can observe the huge, counter-balanced wooden scales in operation. Wheels of cheese, each weighing up to 12.5 kilograms, are stacked on the pallet-like balances before being loaded onto horse-drawn carts by lads who throw and catch the wares.
You can pop on the scales to be weighed, a figure that’s provided in pounds (the equivalent of 500 grams, rather that the lighter Imperial measurement). Perhaps, in the name of vanity, this is best undertaken before devouring tasters of the cheese at stalls around the market. The cheese is sold by gradations of maturity. The categories range from soft, mild Jong (young) cheeses to firm, markedly riper and significantly darker Oud (mature) cheeses.
Gouda cheese from the farm
Alternatively, to buy cheese you could head directly to a local farm. Kaasboerderij Schep at Bergambacht offers guided tours during which you’ll see the cows, their rotating milking station and have a chance to step inside the modern factory. Farmhouse cheeses weighing up to 60 kilos are produced using traditional methods and ingredients, including unpasteurised milk. Those produced at Kaasboerderij Schep were named the tastiest in the Netherlands in 2010.
Gouda’s colourful market and historic weigh house help provide insights into how the city became one of the world’s foremost names in the cheese industry. Visiting provides food for thought and opportunities to stock up on provisions.
At the risk of eliciting a groan, your could even to say that visiting Gouda Cheese Market proves that not all cheesy tourist attractions are necessarily tacky.
Tips for getting to know Gouda
The free Xplre Gouda app provides more information and suggests routes around the city. If you haven’t downloaded it before visiting Gouda then use the free Wi-Fi at the marketplace.
Alternatively, you can book a 90-minute guided tour of the city led by a member of Gouda’s Guild of Guides (see the website for prices and availability).
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.
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Where you can buy gouda cheese
On non-market days you can still taste samples and purchase cheese from the shop in the Weigh House (Markt 35), the Gouds Kaashuis (Hoogstraat 1) and ‘t Kaaswinkeltje (Lange Tiendeweg 30), which stocks only farmhouse style cheeses. Koetshuysch Kaas (Korte Groenendaal 8) has regional as well as international cheeses.