It occurs to me that my intermittent discursions over life in the Low Countries have not yet touched on one of the matters of greatest importance to the local culture (as it were). Being as I am at relative leisure this evening, I thought it was time to rectify that, turning my attention to the vital topic of cheese.
And cheese◊ is an important part of life in the Netherlands. They eat it in toasties, put it on pancakes, and combine it with all manner of things, savory and sweet, in sandwiches. There’s even a turn of phrase about it: daar heeft hij geen kaas van gegeten, “he hasn’t eaten any cheese from there.” It means that the person knows little or nothing about a subject.
Thus is it extra-ironic that having eaten cheese from the Netherlands doesn’t mean you know about Dutch cheese. Everywhere else I’ve lived, the standard Dutch cheeses for sale are Edam and Gouda†‡. Edam has the red wax around it, and is milder and slightly more elastic; Gouda has yellow wax and is stronger in flavor. If one is very sophisticated, one may also be acquainted with Old Amsterdam, a strong cheese as crumbly as aged Cheddar. Most people know Limburger cheese only by reputation (it’s the one that smells like old feet).
Well, leave all of that at the border. (Except for the initial vowel sound of “Gouda”, which you will, if you please, retain lifelong and worldwide.) When you’re buying cheese in the Netherlands, that information is less than useless. Go into a supermarket and you will look in vain for a city name on the bulk of the cheese for sale.
The commonest Dutch cheeses are variations on the ubiquitous unstated Gouda§: jong (young), various sorts of belegen (mature) and oud (old). The Dutch Wikipedia article on kaas gives a handy chart of how long each variety of cheese is aged; it ranges from 4 weeks to a year and a half. Longer ageing gives a deeper color, a crumblier texture and a stronger flavor. Jonge kaas frequently has a green paper label on the wax coating. Belegen tends to have a blue label, and oude kaas a black one.
In addition to the varieties of Gouda, there are regional cheeses such as Edammer, Zaandammer, Maasdammer, and Leidse, usually sold at markets or (in supermarkets) the deli counter. They vary in taste, but are all near cousins of one another. What’s known as Limburger in the rest of the world is called Hervekaas in Dutch, named after the region where it originates (it’s also called stinkkaas.) Unpasteurized cheese is boerenkaas, farmer’s cheese.
There are also Gouda-style cheeses with any number of herbs in them, from cloves to fenugreek. Several of my former colleagues are fond of cumin in theirs. I think it’s an acquired taste; I never acquired it.
It’s also worth mentioning that, allowing for variations in taste, all of these cheeses are delicious.
◊ by which I mean cow’s milk cheese. There are some goat cheeses here, but they’re negligible.
† Note that the news has just come out today that these terms (with “Holland” appended) will be given protected status by the EU.
‡ whose first syllable is to rhyme with cow, not shoe*
* No, really, please learn this. “Goo-da” inspires many Dutch speakers with the strong desire to spoon your eyeballs out.
§ “Ubiquitous Unstated Gouda” is my next rock band name