Say Cheese Say Alkmaar

Jumat, 13 Juni 2008

Achmad Uzair
Dutch people have been commonly stereotyped as “cheese head”society. The term does not only refer to their food habit, but also lexically refers to the way Dutch militia protected their head with cheese “balls” in war against Spaniards. We have a lot more to learn about Dutch cheese if we visit Alkmaar.

Alkmaar is located about 40 km in the North of Amsterdam. This small town can be reached by trains (Nederland Spoor) from all over the country. From the Hague, there is always train to Alkmaar every 30 minutes. If you want to know more about Dutch cheese culture and its industry, this is the place you should visit. There are at least two distinctive attracting sites in Alkmaar: cheese market and cheese museum, both are located in the centrum. If you do not really know Alkmaar, do not worry of getting lost. All you need is to open your eyes and find “the living signs”. I mean, if you drop at Alkmaar train station and you find many people walking in groups like tourists, follow them. I bet they are coming to visit Alkmaar cheese market. It is not surprising because it is a typical tourist site frequently promoted by local tourism board.

Alkmaar was used to be only one of many cheese market centers in the country. Apart from Alkmaar, there were cheese markets in Schangen, Hoorn, Purmerend and Edam in the North, and Gouda, Werden, Bodegraven and some other towns in the South. But, nowadays, Alkmaar cheese market is one of few ones which still exist and maintain its traditional characters. Its traditional character is maintained at least by two things, the market time and the way it is organized.

Following hundred years of tradition, Alkmaar cheese market is only held on Friday, from April to September, started from 10.00 to 12.30. But, that is only for “the show”. The actual working time for those involved in the market is far earlier and it is more complex than it looks. Cheese father, a title referring to the cheese market manager, starts preparing things for market opening at 7 am. Traditionally, just to remind him of the market, a cheese carrier will knock on his door and tell him that rooster has crowed for seven times.

Cheese father was a very respectable position in the society. He is the one who allocates places to cheese seller and lead the sale process. During the market, he is easily known by his black stick with silver knob on it as a sign of his dignity. Cheese carriers also perform important function at Alkmaar cheese market. It is these people who transport cheese from the place where cheese is vended to the weighing scale and later to traders’ carts. To perform and give good services to both cheese farmers and traders, these cheese carriers have a very strict rule. Carriers are not allowed to be late, accept tips, play games or drink beer during working hours. Breakers of the rules will be fined. The money being paid will be put into the group’s treasury to pay for “the beer evening” (hmm, it seems to be another Dutch culture deserved to be explored 🙂 )

The cheese carriers themselves are divided into four teams, called veems, all of them dressed in white pants and shirts, but with different colours of hat: blue, red, yellow and green. Each of these teams also has their own weighing scale since payment they receive is made according to the amount of cheese they carry. From 1773, each veem consists of six permanent carriers and a ‘bag man’, who collects weighing fees. These fees was an important source of income for Alkmaar, especially when it was granted ‘weighing rights’ from the Count of Holland and farmers were only permitted to weigh their cheese in this city with its officially recognized weights and measures.

If we look at the history of Alkmaar cheese market, we can see a more complicated links between social class, industrial relations, and culture during market operation. The start of the market is signed by a bell ringing, a privilege reserve for the honorary guests of Alkmaar city council. In the past, these guests might frequently come from some rich groups. But nowadays, due to some commercial interests, an “inclusive approach” is taken by inviting other groups as guests such as from media circle (on the day I visited Alkmaar, the honorary guests are some crews from TV Programs). There is always competition between cheese producers which held all year long. Every week, by cutting in the middle of cheese balls to allow for better judgement, the cheese they produced is tested for its colour, taste, flavour and firmness. In the end of its calendar year, the best producing company is awarded. The support to the survival of these cheese businesses is also given by those who transport from traders’ cart to the traders’ trucks. When they have to roll up the cheese into the truck, they will have to do it very carefully since their accuray in the job will determine cheese quality.

If you manage to come to the cheese market, don’t forget to visit cheese museum, just next to the weighing house. In this museum, you can find other detailed information about cheese starting from its history, how important it is to Dutch society, “development” of cheese production from domestic work by women into male-dominated industry (and imagine there were hundreds of companies producing cheese, but now only 2 big companies survived!), social symbols played in the market (it’s nice to know that agreement between cheese sellers and traders is usually reached by clapping each others’ right hand), up to the art of making cheese.

Once you get out the museum, I am sure you will have an idea why local tourism board take a tag “Say Cheese Say Alkmaar”.

The Hague, May 2nd, 2008


One Response to “Say Cheese Say Alkmaar”

  1. aim Says:

    verry nice report zair! give me another report and make me hungry! hehe… (i still imagining that the taste of cheese very yamie. 😉 )

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