The Traditional Cheese Bearers at Alkmaar
By Wendy Hughes
Photographs by Conrad Hughes
The cheese market at Alkmaar is a must for anyone visiting the town in north Holland. Its unique history dates back to 1365 when Alkmaar was granted weighing rights and a weighing scale, and by 1612 the number had increased to four. No one is sure when the first cheese market took place, but documents confirm there was a market in 1622, and there is also evidence that the cheese bearer’s guild was founded in 1593. It is these cheese bearerWaagspliens who still keep the old customs alive. Today it is a huge tourist attraction, visited by 100,000 visitors a year from all over the world, and has a big TV screen so everyone can see what is going on.
The market has always taken place in the Waagsplien, and for centuries the cheeses were transported by boat. Every Friday at 10am, from the first Friday in April to the first Friday in September the old traditions of the market take place, but if you want a good view, arrive early. For 10 Euros the visitor can buy, from a lady dressed in tradition costume, complete with clogs, a brown carrier bag containing some gouda cheeses, cheese crackers, and a cheese cutter.
The cheese bearer’s guild consists of four groups, known as warehouses, and they are easily recognised by their distinctive green, blue, red and yellow straw hats. The cheese father is identified by his orange hat and black walking cane with silver mountings, and the Alkmaar coat of arms on his chest. He presides over the four warehouses, and is affectionately known as ‘dad’ or ‘father.’ If he forgets to pick up his cane or wear his hat the cheese bearers call after him: ‘Father, you’re naked.’ Each warehouse comprises of six cheese bearers and a head cheese bearer, known as the bag man.
Each week one of the four warehouses is relieved from bearing and given the job of barrow duty, which means they assist by filling the barrows, and also help out by standing in when someone from another warehouse is absent. Each warehouse has its own scales
Becoming a cheese bearer is not easy, and is an honorary job, performed in addition to their permanent employment, and many are business owners. Before becoming a cheese bearer, they serve an apprenticeship as a reserve worker, and are recognised at the market by their white hats.
Although the market is not open to the public until 10am. Work starts at 7am when the cheeses, about 28,000 kilos, are brought to the Waagsplien, about 2400 chesses in all, and are placed on in the square on special mats in long rows. If it is warmer that 28 degrees Celsius, or if it is raining the cheeses are placed under tarpaulins because if the cheese becomes warm or wet, they become sticky or develop a white coating.
By 9.30am everything is in place. The cheese bearers arrive and their head, the cheese father, announces how many tons of cheese is present that day, and whether they have important guests or film crews, making sure that each Guild is complete. Any cheese bearer that is late is noted on a ‘shame board’ and are expected to pay a fine. The nickname of the cheese bearer who collects the fines is very fittingly ‘the executioner,’ and part of the money collected in fines is used by the guild to sponsor a school in the small city of Alkmaar in Surinam. The remainder goes to the guild.
Interestingly, In line with tradition, the men get together on the Friday before Christmas to receive payment for their work. This consists of €5 ‘wages’ for the cheese bearer, two almond paste cakes for the wife to thank her for keeping her husband’s outfit snow white, and a white loaf of bread with some butter and cheese for the children
At 10am the market begins with the Lady Speaker welcoming visitors and the general public in as many languages as possible. A bell rings on the stroke of 10, often by visitor to the market, at the invitation of the council of Alkmaar, indicating that the market has opened. Now the samplers and traders set to work, inspecting the cheeses by knocking the cheese, and cutting it and by using a special scoop a piece of cheese is extracted, crumbed between the fingers and smelt. The number of holes in the cheese, known as eyes, is inspected. These are caused by non-harmful lactic acid bacteria during maturing and a perfect cheese will have its ‘eyes’ evenly spread throughout. A cheese that any eyes, known as a blind cheese, is considered to be inferior.
This process is repeated throughout the morning so that visitors who arrive late can experience the whole show. Price bargaining per kilo is still done by means of clapping hands and shouting prices. The last clap clinches the deal on a batch of cheese, and once the deal is closed, the cheese carriers the barrow to take the sold cheese to the Wag, where it is weighed by the ‘tasman,’ the purse man and he can be recognised by the purse round his waist.
After the weighing process is complete the cheese bearers carry the stretcher laden with cheese across the market towards the hand barrows before they are transported by lorry to the cheese packaging warehouse. Walking with a heavy stretcher, which weighs in the region of some 120 kilos, is made easier by a walking rhythm and to prevent the stretcher from hitting their legs they walk ‘out of step,’ in a rather strange looking trot, which keeps the movement to a minimum. By 12.30 the entire square is emptied of cheese and in no time at lass is filled with tables and chairs set out by the outside cafes, ready to welcome visitors to lunch.