Cheese would have to be the hardest-to-avoid foodstuff in the Netherlands. Not only are there the wide walls and fridges of cheese in every supermarket, there are the endless stalls at farmer’s and organic markets, entire shops dedicated to enormous yellow wheels and finally, the famous cheese markets in Alkmaar, Edam and Hoorne.
This, however, is an excellent thing. For anyone whose experience of Gouda (pronounced “goo-dah” by everyone outside the Netherlands) was a rather flabby, flavourless, pallid block shoved next to the Havarti, eating the cheese the Dutch eat is a revelation.
Firstly, that there’s not just one type of Gouda. In fact, there are six, all dependent on the age of the cheese.
- Jonge kaas (4 weeks)
- Jong belegen (8-10 weeks)
- Belegen (16-18 weeks)
- Extra belegen (7-8 months)
- Oude kaas (10-12 months)
- Overjarige kaas (18 months and more)
Jonge kaas is very soft and mild, but once the cheese ages to become jonge belegen or belegen it hits that sweet spot that makes it good sandwich cheese: soft enough not to crumble on the bread but old enough to have a good flavour.
If you prefer your cheese to taste stronger, then you should go for extra belegen or oude kaas. As the cheese ages, it develops a caramel sweetness and has a slight crunchiness from salt-like calcium lactate or tyrosine crystals that form in older cheeses.
For the kind of tasty, crumbly cheese that is delicious on a cheese platter with mustard or that sweet apple syrup the Dutch sometimes serve, try the overjarige kaas.
Secondly, Gouda is the most popular cheese in the Netherlands, with over half of all cheese production devoted to churning out its enormous yellow wheels.
Thirdly, it is one also of the oldest recorded cheeses in the world still made today: the first mention of Gouda cheese dates from 1184.
Lastly, it’s is not named after the city of Gouda because it is produced there, but because it has historically been traded there.
Are there other sorts of Dutch cheeses?
Well, the Netherlands’ second most popular cheese is Edam, making up nearly a third of all cheese production. It’s commonly recognisable abroad due to its red paraffin coating, which due to its excellent preservation qualities made it the world’s most popular cheese from the 14th to 18th centuries.
Like Gouda, it is a semi-hard cheese that intensifies in flavour and hardness as it ages. It also has a significantly lower fat content than many other traditional cheeses and a mild, salty taste that appeals to almost everyone.
Then there’s Maasdam, the next most popular cheese, making up 15 per cent of production. This is the one with the large holes, created by bacteria that release gasses during the maturation process. It has a slightly sweet, nutty taste.
It was created in 1984 in imitation of the Swiss-style Emmentaal and originally trademarked as Leerdammer cheese, but now many companies produce it under the name Maasdam.
Another very popular (and very delicious) type is Leidse kaas, the cumin-spiced cheese. Traditional farm-made Leidse kaas is a Protected Designation of Origin named Boeren-Leidse met sleutels and its wax bears an impression of a set of keys, the city of Leiden’s coat of arms.
There are many, many other varieties of cheeses with interesting additions, like Frisian clove cheese, or ones flavoured with herbs such as chives or parsley. There are also the more unusual varieties using mustard, pepper, onions or nettles.
A visit to any tourist cheese shop will reveal many new and strange flavours, even in new colours, such as the green basil-flavoured ones.
The Dutch don’t go in for smelly cheese as much as some others (the French…). The closest is probably Hervekaas, made on the Dutch / Belgian / Luxembourg border.
Also known as Limburger, it was first made during the 19th century in the historical Duchy of Limburg, now divided between Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands. It has an orange / yellow rind and is especially known for smelling rather like body odour.
Then there’s the smoked cheese. It’s actually made by melting then smoking normal cheese and reconstituting it into long, tube shape, like a sausage, with a distinctive brown rind. It smells smoky, obviously, and is very tasty.
You are probably also aware of the popularity of goat’s cheese (geitenkaas) in the Netherlands, particularly on salads. Some versions are smellier; the semi-hard Gouda style for example, but the most common is the fresh, soft variety.
There are also some rather delicious Gouda cheeses with lovely blue veins, if you are a fan of blue cheese. They are rich and sweet, but not as salty as a French Roquefort.
All in all, there is an enormous variety of tastes to delight cheese-lovers in the Netherlands. Even if you will never come to regard boterham met kaas as the most delicious food in the world, you can at least talk about it with expertise.
Sources: About.com, Wikipedia