Alkmaar is a historic Dutch town complete with gabled buildings, tall church spires, cute canals and bridges, and upmarket stores in cobbled streets. It’s a microcosm of Amsterdam, the capital city of The Netherlands, which is just 30 minutes by train to the south.
Where once most towns in The Netherlands held their own weekly cheese market, Gouda, Edam, and Alkmaar are among the few towns now to retain the tradition. Alkmaar’s market takes place each Friday between mid-April and mid-September on the cobbled Waagplein. It has been going strong since 1593 and the market is still run along traditional lines; originally every cheese producer had its own weighing house, known as the waag, and its own team of cheese carriers, the veem.
The guild of cheese carriers is still responsible for getting the cheese to market each Friday; there are four teams of seven men, each with their own guild color. The overseer of all four teams carries a black stick with a silver nob on top and the senior man in each team carries the weights used in pricing the cheese in a bag slung across his chest. Each team has a leader, regular members called vastmen, and assistants; to be appointed to one of these jobs is high honor indeed.
At 10am precisely each Friday the cheese carriers enact an ancient scene in the Waagplein. The provost of the market oversees zetters dressed in blue shirts who remove the rounds of yellow cheese from the lorries, and the carriers then run them to the weighing machines on traditional wooden hoppers. Here they are weighed under supervision and rushed into to the market square, where they are laid in rows in front of the waag. Haggling over price and quality is conducted with much hand clapping and good-natured shouting.
Nowadays much of this ceremony is carried out for the benefit of tourists, who come to Alkmaar by the thousand to witness the spectacle. But there’s plenty else to keep visitors in this pretty town, from canal tours to visiting the National Beer Museum or sampling the excellence of the local cuisine.
Contributed by Sasha Heseltine