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Thread: Follow the 'cheese trail' across the Netherlands

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    Default Follow the 'cheese trail' across the Netherlands

    Follow the 'cheese trail' across the Netherlands


    A dairy-based route highlights some of the country's most picturesque towns and villages – and its most delicious produce





    Think cheese. You probably think of artisan producers in France or the Alpine-pasture produce of Switzerland – but Holland? Yet Vermeer, a Gouda cheese produced by the company FrieslandCampina, took the top prize at the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest in the US (although it was bumped off the top spot by a Swiss Emmental last month). So why don't we make more of a fuss about it?

    "Sadly, much of our exported cheese is young and lacking in flavour," says leading Dutch cheese maker Henri Willig, himself a former winner of the contest for his Polder Gold goats' cheese. "Yet proper Dutch cheese has a unique flavour, given the soil, the grass the Fresian cows feed on, and the milk they produce. It is creamy with a hint of sourness."

    There are currently some 150 cheesemakers along Holland's burgeoning cheese trail, ranging from big companies such as Willig and Cono to small-scale artisan producers. Much like travelling the Route des Grands Crus in French wine country, you can drop in and visit most cheese-producing farms. Larger producers offer tours and gift shops for cheesy souvenirs.


    Cheese production

    I've come to the rural heartland of North Holland, a region traditionally associated with dairy, sheep and flower farming, to follow the trail. During a self-drive weekend of bucolic villages, slow-paced life and a chance to consume my own body weight in cheese, I want to explore the rural traditions that are the cornerstone of cheese-making in Holland.

    Driving north from Amsterdam, the countryside opens up to reveal a steam-ironed landscape of grazing pasture, demarcated by dykes and polders, land beneath sea level pumped dry of water by windmills. Monks invented the pumping technique and farmers developed it for agriculture from the 16th century. Colourful village festivals, based around the agricultural calendar, developed soon after and, by the time Vermeer painted The Milkmaid in 1658, many towns across northern Holland had their very own cheese markets.

    My first stop is the city of Edam itself, home to a historic cheese-weighing hall. William of Orange first granted Edam the right to trade cheese in 1576, and the town still hosts a cheese market during the summer months, although these days it's more about show than trade. Cheese shops around town stock examples of the three traditional Dutch varieties of cheese, namely Edam, Gouda and cumin-spiced Leiden. Local restaurants also support the cheese-chomping mania (my dinner that night featured a Messenklever Edam and a Bergens Blonde, served with fig compote).



    The next day, I head to Beemster, the oldest polder in northern Holland, dating from 1612. The reclaimed region, parcelled out in a rectangular grid and dotted with farms and merchants' stately mansions, is now a World Heritage Site. The Farming Museum highlights the importance of traditional technology in man's battle with the water to maintain the quality of the dairy-farming pasture, using dykes and windmills to control the water level.

    The Holy Grail for the cheese cognoscenti, however, remains the town of Alkmaar, where Waagplein, the central square, has hosted Holland's most important cheese market for centuries. Alkmaar had a weighing house for cheese as early as 1365. On a single day in 1917, some 365,000kg of cheese was sold at Alkmaar. These days, the market survives only on Fridays between April and early September.

    The members of the Cheese Carrier's Guild, dressed in starched white uniforms and sporting jaunty straw boaters with rival colour sashes, compete to showcase their cheese-lifting skills. Responsible for weighing and transporting the cheese, they run through the crowd with handcarts, drawing whoops from the crowd as they manhandle huge Edams.

    Around the perimeter of the square, meanwhile, pairs of cheese traders bargain according to a complex ancient ritual. They exchange a series of singsong handclaps while negotiating the price, slapping each other's hands in turn during the trade, only stopping for a handshake once the final price has been agreed.

    After the show, I explore the weighing hall, now a museum with displays tracing the history of cheese-making from medieval agriculture to 20th-century artefacts. Pride of place is given to ancient kaasschaaf: cheese slicers used to slice the cheese for sampling. No self-respecting cheese connoisseur around these parts would be seen using a knife to slice their cheese.

    Ancient cheese warehouses still survive among the wood-panelled buildings, medieval courtyards and quiet canals. A series of bright, cheery posters encourage people to consider cow well-being at all times. "Allow them to roam free in the pasture," they proclaim.

    Cheese shops on side streets off the main square ply the traditional styles of Dutch cheese, but also sell the new flavours currently in vogue among next-generation cheese consumers – pesto, stinging nettle and paprika.

    "Personally, I prefer the creamier flavour of Dutch cheese to other European cheeses," says Helen de Gier, a sales assistant at the Notenbranderij shop, talking me through a counter heaving under the waxy skins of brightly coloured cheeses. "It's the combination of softness with sourness."

    I come away with several varieties to take home, including an exotic black truffle cheese. Better still, after a tranquil weekend exploring rural Holland and sampling the new breed of artisan flavours, I've seen the light about the true taste of Dutch cheese. I'll never buy another plastic pack of supermarket Edam again.


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    Default A nation of tall cheese-eaters

    A nation of tall cheese-eaters



    The Dutch drink a lot of milk, eat a lot of cheese, and are now the tallest people in the world. Could there be a connection? The author of a new book on the Netherlands, Ben Coates, explains how the Dutch became not only voracious but also very discerning cheese eaters.

    Earlier this year, a museum in Amsterdam was the scene of a terrible crime. Doing their rounds at the end of a busy day, curators were horrified to discover that one of their most prized exhibits - a small shiny object glittering with 220 diamonds - was missing. A security video showed two young men in baseball caps loitering near the display case, but the police had no other leads. The world's most expensive cheese slicer was gone.



    In some countries, a theft from the national cheese museum might sound like the plot for an animated children's film. In the Netherlands, however, cheese is a serious business. For the Dutch, cheeses, milk, yoghurts and other dairy products are not only staple foods but national symbols, and the bedrock of a major export industry.

    The Netherlands' love of all things dairy is largely a consequence of its unique geography. Four hundred years ago, much of the country lay under water, and much of the rest was swampy marshland. "The buttock of the world", was how one 17th-Century visitor described it, "full of veines and bloud, but no bones". Over the next few centuries though, the Dutch embarked on an extraordinary project to rebuild their country. Thousands of canals were dug, and bogs were drained by hundreds of water-pumping windmills.

    Some of the new land was built on, but large areas were also allocated to help feed the growing population of cities like Amsterdam. Silty reclaimed soil proved perfect for growing rich, moist grass, and that grass in turn made perfect food for cows. Thousands of the creatures soon were grazing happily on reclaimed land. The country's most popular breed - the black and white Friesian - became world famous. At one point, a Friesian called Pauline Wayne even lived at the White House, providing fresh milk for President William Howard Taft and giving personal "interviews" to the Washington Post.


    President Taft's cow, Pauline Wayne, on the lawn on of the State, War and Navy Building, 1909

    In the Netherlands, milk became a popular drink at a time when clean water was in short supply. Any that wasn't drunk was churned into butter or cheeses, often named after the towns where they were traded, such as Gouda (pronounced, to the confusion of cheese-lovers worldwide, "How-da"). In a neat circularity, stacks of tough cow hides were even used as foundations for buildings in Amsterdam: the cows which grazed on reclaimed land providing the foundations for further reclamation. By the 20th Century, the Dutch had fallen head over heels in love with the cow.

    Today, the country's affection for all things bovine continues. The Netherlands now has more than 1.6 million dairy cows - roughly as many as Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined. (The UK has slightly more, but is roughly six times the size). Dutch cattle produce more than 12 million tonnes of milk each year and some 800,000 tonnes of cheese - more than twice as much as the UK.

    Dairy producers often adorn their packaging with pictures of docile cows grazing amid buttercups, watched over by ruddy old farmers. In truth, although the Netherlands still has many small farms, the industry is now dominated by a few large dairies like Friesland Campina. Two small Dutch butter businesses, which merged and started making margarine, helped give rise to one of largest companies in the world - Unilever.


    Cows get priority at this crossing in the town of Voorst

    According to the dairy association ZuivelNL, nearly 18,000 Dutch dairy farms now support 60,000 jobs nationwide. Nearly 7bn (5.1bn) of dairy products are exported each year, to countries as far away as China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. With the Dutch economy taking a battering in recent years, the humble dairy cow now finds itself shouldering an unlikely burden, as one of the big beasts keeping the Dutch economy off the ground.

    Dutch dairy exports might be even larger were it not for the fact that the Dutch eat so much dairy themselves. To the Dutch, milk and cheese are staples, as essential a part of the weekly shop as rice is for a Chinese shopper or teabags are for an Englishman. It's said that about a sixth of the average Dutch food shopping bill goes on dairy products. In a typical year, the average Dutch person consumes more than 25% more milk-based products than their British, American or German counterparts.

    Dutch cuisine is not especially renowned internationally. Popular dishes tend to rely heavily on simple, earthy stodge such as cabbage and potatoes. Cheese, though, is a major exception, a foodstuff which can transform even the humblest Dutchman into a fussy gourmand. Markets throughout the Netherlands sell an astonishing range of different sizes, ages and flavours, from Maasdammer with its Swiss-style holes, to wagon wheel-sized Komijnekaas speckled with cumin seeds. Perhaps the most famous are the spherical Edams, coated in wax to help retain moisture and stacked in markets like cannonballs. In the 1840s, a Uruguayan battleship allegedly even used some Dutch cheeses as cannonballs - smashing the mainmast and ripping up the sails of an Argentine rival.


    Edam cheese being loaded on to a barge in the late 1930s

    In today's Netherlands, piles of cheese cubes make a popular bar snack, and nothing is more likely to get Dutch lips licking than a kaasplankje cheese platter. But cheese also makes a popular breakfast. Cereal isn't as popular as elsewhere in Europe, and morning trains are filled with commuters eating homemade brown-bread-and-cheese sandwiches for breakfast, often with milk or yoghurt on the side. Urban legend tells of a wealthy executive who complained to the national airline KLM about the food provided in business class. There was no need for all the fancy hot food and champagne, he said. A tasty cheese sandwich and a glass of milk would do just fine.

    One might think that an all-dairy diet would bad for waistlines, but in fact the Dutch have grown mostly in the opposite direction. In the mid-1800s, the average Dutchman was about 5ft 4in tall (1m 63cm) - 3in (7.5cm) shorter than the average American. In 150-odd years of scoffing milk and cheese, however, the Dutch soared past the Americans and everyone else. These days, the average Dutchman is more than 6ft tall (1m 83cm), and the average Dutch woman about 5ft 7in (1m 70cm). The Dutch have gone from being among the shortest people in Europe to being the tallest in the world.

    Cumin cheese, or Komijnekaas

    Scientists continue to debate the causes of this growth spurt - improved nutrition, democratisation of wealth, genetic factors and the natural selection of tall men are all thought to play a role. One important clue is that the fact that growing tall appears to be contagious: immigrants who move to the Netherlands usually end up taller than people who remain in their home countries. So it's perfectly possible that the Dutch dairy addiction played a major role in turning one of the world's flattest places into a land of giants.

    In recent years, dairy farmers throughout Europe have fallen on hard times. Exports to Russia, a sizeable market for Dutch cheese, collapsed last year during the conflict in Crimea. This year, the abolition of EU milk production quotas has forced milk prices down by some 20% in parts of the continent. For most Dutch, though, their love of lactose is as strong as ever. Milk remains one of the nation's favourite drinks, and cheese a national religion.

    The diamond slicer that was stolen from the Cheese Museum has sadly never been found. In desperation, the company that made and owned it, Boska, has offered a reward which it hopes will attract the interest of its countrymen. Anyone who finds the slicer can claim the world's largest cheese fondue.


    Ben Coates is the author of Why the Dutch Are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands.

    (Article contains a video)


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    I am not a cheese connoisseur. I like mozzarella, cheddar, and provolone.
    Please don't PM classifications. ^_^'

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    Quote Originally Posted by ChildofMud View Post
    I am not a cheese connoisseur. I like mozzarella, cheddar, and provolone.
    It's never too late to become one.


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    In Corpore Sardo Mens-Sarda's Avatar
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    I like cheese! Sardinian cheese obviously.

    Almost all of our cheese it's made with sheep milk, some with goat milk, and as far as I know in Sardinia there is only one kind of cheese made with cow milk.

    One of the most consumed, expecially in America is the famous Pecorino Romano (Casu Romanu in Sardinian), produced in Sardinia, Latium and Tuscany since the Roman age, (though 97% of production of this cheese is in Sardinia, which alone owns 60% of all Italian sheeps).




    Pecorino Sardo DOP "Fiore Sardo" (very tasty and quite salty, I like it a lot!)


    Pecorino Romano (in America is consumed mostly grated, while we also like to eat it with bread while drinking red wine, it's quite salty)


    Ricotta (obviously made with sheep milk, Sardinians don't eat other kind of ricotta)


    Smoked Ricotta (it's very tasty, I adore it)


    This one is the only cheese of Sardinia produced with cow milk, in Italian it's erroneously known as Peretta (little pear), but the correct name in Sardinian language is "Figu" (Fig) because of the shape, or also known as Casizlu (Latin "Caseolus", diminutive of "Caseus = cheese")


    This one instead is not for heart weak people! The famous cheese with maggots, known in Sardinian "Casu Frzigu" (soaked cheese) or "Casu Martzu" (rotten cheese) or "Casu Jampagadu/Jumpagadu" (bounced cheese), it's also produced in Corsica where is known as "Casgiu Merzu", other similar kind of cheese are present throughout various Italian regions with different names.
    This kind of cheese is not sold to public because of Italian and European laws, but it's produced by sheperds for personal use, drilling a hole in the middle of the shape, then the hole is filled with olive oil, then the hole is covered with its own rind, and the cheese is left to mature. Little mosquitos are lured by the smell of olive oil, they place their eggs in the hole with olive oil, the maggots of these mosquitos dig into the cheese in every direction turning it into a cream that can be spread on bread. The flavour is very salty and spicy together. Usually when the tourists come to Sardinia they are a bit scared by this cheese, but when they finally decide to taste it, they can't stop eating.


    Spoiler!
    Last edited by Mens-Sarda; 06-15-2019 at 09:52 PM.
    Non Auro, Sed Ferro, Recuperanda Est Patria (Not by Gold, But by Iron, Is the Nation to be Recovered) - Marcus Furius Camillus (Roman General)

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