Alkmaar: Holland’s Cheese Capital

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Being accepted to the School of Pharmacy was the most treasured moment that I’ve experienced all year, but the acceptance was bittersweet, because it was accompanied with the sad realization that I had forfeited my rights to enjoy my very last summer vacation. 

Since I still had four prerequisites to take before I could receive the coveted “Final Admit” letter, I spent the foggy months of June through August dreaming about a European escape between lessons in cell biology and economics. 

Shortly after completing my final exams, I jammed my backpack with a bunch of clothes and toiletries and set off for the Netherlands with my dearest travel companion, my mom. 

Alkmaar is Holland’s cheese capital, and for cheese lovers like my mom and myself, we were enraptured by the thought of attending Alkmaar’s very last Friday-morning cheese market of the summer. 

Known as Kaasmarkt, the market opened in 1593 and has continued until today, weighing and selling hundreds of rounds of cheese in front of the Waaggebouw, a  sixteenth-century weigh house located in the main square. 

The low-lying geography of Holland is not ideal for crop growing, but it is far better suited to raising cows, making Holland the world’s first and largest exporter of cheese.

Arriving about an hour before the market opened, my mom and I explored the neat rows of cheese wheels stacked in doubles in the square.  At 10 a.m., a bell was rung to signal the opening of the market, accompanied by a narration of the ensuing events, provided in four languages. 

The selling of cheese is an ornate and colorful event in which members of four fraternities of the cheese carriers’ guild (red, yellow, blue and green) shuttle cheese wheels on cheese-barrows to and from the weigh house and square. 

The wooden cheese barrows are tied to ropes that are slung across the shoulders of two men who share the weight of eight cheese wheels — or about 295 pounds of cheese between them. 

The gait of each carrier is unique to watch, because it is out of step with his partner. This ensures that the barrow remains still, as they run to and fro.

After watching the sale of cheese for a while, my Mom and I explored the open-air markets of Alkmaar to sample the cheeses and to purchase our very own miniature wooden cheese barrow to bring home with us to San Francisco.