One of the joys of visiting Holland is tasting the local cheeses and cheese dishes. But I found further allure in this pastime by going to farmhouses where the cheeses are made and to colorful traditional markets where they are sold.
Nature provided Holland with the perfect blend of climate and fertile flat lands for lush pastures where prized herds are pampered and graze on special grasses and herbs so that their creamy milk is extra-flavorful. Dutch farmers have long used their bounty of rich milk to make delicious cheeses, and their products have been highly prized in European markets since the 12th century. Pilgrims carried Dutch cheeses on the Mayflower en route to America.
For a small country, Holland has an impressive list of cheeses which are enjoyed locally and exported. Although the best-known kinds are now made primarily in factories, some are still homemade. A typical farmhouse has living quarters, a barn for cows, a hay room and a cheese-making room under the same thatched roof. Tourists are welcome at many of these residences to observe the mode of living and the art of making cheeses which might be fresh soft cream types or firm yellow kinds. They are rarely exported but enjoyed by the family or sold locally as "country cheese."
The three best-known Dutch cheeses are named after the towns where they are originally made. Edam, from North Holland, is often called cannon ball cheese, as the round balls were used as a replacement for ammunition during an important naval battle. It is a semisoft orange-yellow cheese with a mild, nut-like flavor.
Gouda, from South Holland, is similar to Edam in flavor and texture but is light yellow and has a flattened top and bottom. When sold domestically both cheeses are yellow. The familiar waxy red jackets are added to those shipped abroad. Each should be well aged to develop a full-bodied quality.
The town of Gouda is famous for its Thursday cheese market, held in one of the country's finest squares dominated by a lovely Gothic town hall and ancient Weigh House and surrounded by picturesque restaurants featuring cheeses and cheese dishes.
Leyden, named for the university town, is a semihard, light yellow cheese that comes in two kinds made tangy with either caraway or cumin seeds. Delft is a similar cheese. Lesser known but flavorful cheeses are tangy blue-veined Bluefort, aromatic Kernehen, clove-flavored Friesian, semihard yellow Etuve, nutty-flavored Commission, creamy Gras or Velvet Kaas (cheese), and strong Limburger. Friesland cheeses are marked as May cheeses as the grass in early spring makes them particularly luscious.
One of the best places to enjoy the display of Dutch cheeses is at the Alkmaar cheese market held every Friday morning from late April through September in a picturesque central square. Throngs arrive by boats, car and the Cheese Express, a special train from Amsterdam, to observe a traditional ceremony that was first held more than 300 years ago and is repeated as in medieval times.
As the market begins with music, the square is covered with row upon row of golden cheeses, some large and flat, others small and round, which arrive by barge on one of Alkmaar's many canals. Buyers emerge to inspect and taste the cheese and bargain over prices. Sales are sealed with shouts and special handclasps.
White-robed porters, wearing large picture straw hats of primary colors designating their ancient guild, load the cheeses onto wooden cradles and tote them with a swinging trot to be set on the scales at the nearby Weigh house, one of the town's most interesting buildings. Then the cheeses are carried off by the porters to the barges of their new owners.
Amid all the morning's likely activities one can always seek out a nearby sidewalk cafe or restaurant for refreshment and cheeses.
Cheese plays an important role in every Dutch person's life. It is eaten at nearly every meal, including breakfast. Cheeses go well with the creamy butter amd many different kinds of white and dark breads. They are staple fare for children's lunches. Various types are sold in shops, thinly sliced or in one piece either as snacks to be eaten on the premises or to take out. In brodjeswenkels (delicatessens) one dines on cheeses with hot rolls, condiments and heavy Dutch beer. Cheese, or cheese sticks, balls or truffles are enjoyed when sipping the traditonal genever, a potent juniper-flavored spirit.
Dutch cooks also make flavorful cheese appetizers, sandwiches, soups, souffles, croquettes, casseroles, puffs, pies sauces and vegetable dishes. Given below are recipes for three Dutch cheese specialities. CHEESE TRUFFLES (Makes about 20) 1/4 pound butter or margarine, softened 1/4 pound grated Gouda or Edam cheese 1/4 teaspoon paprika Salt, freshly ground pepper, grated nutmeg to taste 3 or 4 slices pumpernickel
Combine butter or margarine, cheese, paprika, salt, pepper and nutmeg in a bowl; mix well. Chill 20 minutes. Shape into small balls. Chill 30 minutes. Toast pumpernickel twice and whirl in a blender or crush with a rolling pin to make crumbs. Roll each cheese ball in the crumbs. Serve as appetizers. CHEESE SOUP (8 servings) 4 thin slices bacon, diced 1/4 cup butter or margarine 1 medium-sized onion, peeled and diced 2 tablespoons tomato paste 1 teaspoon sharp prepared mustard 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce 1/8 teaspoon paprika Salt, pepper to taste 4 cups rich chicken broth 2 cups shredded Edam or Gouda cheese 2 cups hot light cream or milk
Fry bacon in a large saucepan until crisp. Pour off fat. Add butter or margarine and melt. Add onion and saute until tender. Mix in tomato paste, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, paprika, salt, and pepper. Cook about a minute, stirring, to blend flavors. Add chicken broth and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook slowly, covered, 30 minutes. Add cheese and continue to cook over low heat until melted. Pour in cream or milk; mix well. Serve with croutons, if desired. BAKED CHEESE SANDWICHES (4 servings) 8 slices firm white bread, crusts removed Butter or margarine About 1 tablespoon sharp mustard 4 thick large slices Edam or Gouda cheese 2 eggs 1 cup milk Salt, pepper to taste
Spread 4 slices bread with butter or margarine and mustard. Top with cheese and remaining bread to make four sandwiches. Place in a shallow baking dish. Combine eggs, milk, salt and pepper; mix well. Pour over sandwiches. Dot with butter. Let stand about 10 minutes. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven 30 minutes. Serve hot.