The Dutch are big cheese eaters – eating cheese on bread for breakfast and lunch, cheese cubes as a snack with a drink at the end of the afternoon, and grated cheese over the macaroni for dinner – all adding up to an average of around 20 kg per person per year.
The Dutch cheese eaten the most, both in the Netherlands and abroad, is Gouda cheese, or ’Goudse kaas’, so-named because cheese produced in Holland had to be traded in the city of Gouda. Gouda-type cheese has been made and traded since the middle ages, and is reputedly one of the oldest cheeses still being made today. Traditional cheese markets are also still being held, but these days mainly as a colourful tourist attraction, acted out on different mornings of the week in Gouda and several other Dutch towns during the summer months.
Gouda cheese changes as it matures to give a range of textures and flavours, but in general it can be characterised as relatively sweet. During production, the curds are washed with warm water after the milk has separated into curds and whey. This causes some of the milk sugar, lactose, to be washed away, and reduces the formation of lactic acid in the cheese, so Gouda cheese tastes less sour than cheddar, for example. The washed curds are shaped in moulds, and the resulting ‘wheel-shaped’ cheeses are soaked in brine for several days before they are allowed to mature. This process extracts some of the water from the cheese, aids ‘skin’ formation and acts as a preservative, as well as giving extra flavour. Nowadays, Gouda cheese is made in the traditional Dutch way all around the world, in countries including the USA, China, New Zealand and South Africa. However, only cheese made in the Netherlands can be labelled ‘Gouda Holland’, and for a cheese to be called ‘Noord-Hollandse Goudse’ all stages of the production process have to be carried out in the province of North Holland.
There are six categories of Gouda cheese depending on the length of the maturation period:
‘jonge kaas’, matured for only 4 weeks, and a soft, very mild and creamy ‘young’ cheese;
‘jong belegen’, matured for 8-10 weeks, and still fairly soft, but with a stronger flavour;
‘belegen’, matured for 16-18 weeks, a ‘mature’ cheese with a firmer texture;
‘extra belegen’, matured for 7-8 months;
‘oude kaas’, ‘old cheese’, matured for 10-12 months, and a tasty, hard cheese that may contain crystals, principally of calcium lactate;
‘overjarige’, ‘over-aged’, matured for at least 12 months.
The majority of Dutch cheese is factory-made these days, but some Gouda-type cheese is still made on farms. Unlike the factory-made cheese, this ‘boerenkaas’ is made from unpasteurised fresh milk. Different batches of farmers’ cheese may vary, depending on the farm and the conditions at the time, but farmers’ cheese generally has extra flavour. Seeds or spices are also sometimes added to factory-made and farmers’ Gouda cheese – Gouda with cumin seeds is particularly good, and you can also find it with cloves or mustard seeds.
You need about ten litres of milk to make a kilogram of Gouda cheese and the finished product is high in protein, fat, and calcium, as well as being an important source of vitamins B12 and K. It is about 40% water, and contains almost no carbohydrate. The fat in Gouda cheese contributes significantly to its flavour and good melting qualities. Normally, between 48 and 52% of the dry weight of factory-made Gouda is fat, and it is labelled ‘48+’ to show this. The dry weight percentage is used because it doesn’t change during maturation, while the water content decreases. In a young 48+ cheese, about 29% of the total weight is fat.
Around two thirds of the fat in Gouda cheese is saturated, and concerns about eating too much saturated fat have led to the development of lower fat cheeses, labelled e.g. 20+ or 30+, the plus again indicating the fat content in the dry weight. There is also graskaas, made from the milk of cows which have eaten the new spring grass in the meadows. This cheese may contain a higher proportion of unsaturated fats, including conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which may even help to protect against heart disease.
Every Dutch supermarket has a big selection of Gouda cheese but for something special you should try a specialist market stall or shop, where you may be able to taste the cheese before you buy. In Amsterdam, there are helpful staff and samples of many different Dutch cheeses in the combined Cheese Museum and shop on the Prinsengracht, where the photo at the top was taken. There are even shops where you can buy Gouda cheese that is coloured blue, green and red (though I prefer it yellow).
In the Netherlands, milk has been described as the ‘white motor’, and more than 12 billion kilograms are produced here each year. More than half of this is turned into cheese, both for home consumption and export. Dutch Gouda cheese comes in a range of consistencies and flavours, and if you’re new to the Netherlands, you might be surprised at how good it can be.