Think: the Netherlands. What are the first few images popping up into your mind? Wooden clogs, tulips, windmills? Maybe gay-weddings, bicycles, the Amsterdam canals, or brown coffee shops? What about the yellow gold? No, not Heineken, I’m talking: cheese! With 650 to 750 million kilograms of cheese produced every year and 2/3rds exported, The Netherlands is the largest cheese exporter in the world, and most people are familiar with Dutch cheese like Gouda and Edam to name the most famous. But how is it made? What are the differences between brands and ages? In this article, we will reveal its secrets.
Ad Karsemeyer opens the door of his cheese storage in Woerden: this is where the ripening process takes place, giving the cheese its delicate flavour. The slight sour smell of fermented milk enters our nose, just slightly offending our nostrils! It is a bit chilly in the room and we are surrounded by thousands of 20-kilogram cheese wheels which are in the middle of their ageing process. “Wow, so many!” we grasp. “Oh, this is nothing”, says Ad, “join me upstairs and I will show you some more!”
In his family-run business, Ad stores about 15,000 cheeses which come straight from the farms or production lines. They are ripened until it is the right moment to sell them to high quality cheese stores.
“Every cheese must be turned once a week. This prevents the top half from drying out as the water content of the cheese goes down. They are stored on wooden shelves with wide nerves so that they absorb the humidity coming out of the cheese” Ad explains.
Indeed, it is a bit humid in the room and the windows are open. This is how the temperature is regulated: the old-fashioned way! “The bricked wall is my thermal buffer, and the temperature is regulated only when it gets really cold or really hot outside. A dehumidifier works constantly to absorb the moist.” The natural and gradual temperature changes provided by opening or closing the windows allow the cheese to undergo a unique ripening process and this is what makes its taste different from the cheese that is ripened in industrial-type storages.
Each cheese wheel is coated with a porous plastic applied with a brush to prevent dirt from getting in and to allow moist to get out. Ad carefully hand-writes the date on each wheel, as its price is calculated based on its storage time. The cheese is sold as young (jonge kaas, 4 weeks), young aged (jong belegen, 8-10 weeks), aged (belegen, 16-18 weeks), extra aged (extra belegen, 7-8 months), old (oude kaas, 10-12 months), or perennial (overjarige kaas , 18 months and more). “The oldest cheese here are three years old: a bit dryer and very tasteful. Perfect with a glass of wine as an aperitif!” Ad adds.
The Dutch favourites are young aged and aged. These days farmers’ cheeses are gaining popularity: made of non-pasteurised milk, not all bacteria are killed resulting in a full and creamy taste. Another best-seller is the grass-cheese: in the spring, cows graze on fresh grass containing more vitamins and minerals. Even better, Ad explains while he is drying a blue, red and white “Nord-Holland” sticker on a 50-centimetre diameter cheese wheel: the best Dutch cheese is made in the province of North-Holland. Every spring, the Rhine River floods acres of fields, leaving a layer of nutrients behind. This is the most tasteful milk, hence the best cheese!
The next sticker he puts on is a black one reminding the famous Old Amsterdam cheese most tourists bring back. But this one reads “Old Woerdenaar”, and it makes the pride of people from Woerden! Their unique way of ripening the cheese adds a special flavour to it: the one made with love and passion for this delicious dairy product.
Claire & Marcella
- If you want to buy Dutch cheese in the Netherlands, this is how it goes:
- 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)