Some months ago, I was on the train to Utrecht from the Hague and I passed a town with a stunning cathedral. I checked the map, but I decided that I’d visit. A few months later, I read something online about the Woerden cheese market and I was intrigued. Unlike the other cheese markets in the Netherlands, the Woerden Kaasmarkt is 100% real (unlike Gouda and Alkmaar). Woerden has the the last commercial cheese market in the Netherlands where farmers and buyers actually determine the price using traditional methods. Keep reading to learn more about this fascinating Dutch cheese market!
Woerden v. other Dutch cheese markets
Most of the Dutch cheese markets in the Netherlands are historic re-enactments where actors and locals display what it would have been like to visit the historic cheese markets that the cheeses are named after. This is the case with Edam, Alkmaar, and Gouda. Woerden doesn’t have the long history of other cities as the cheese market only dates back to 1885.
When is the Woerden cheese market?
You can visit the Woerden cheese market Saturdays between the end of April until the end of August (2018). Check for the dates. The market begins at 11am on Saturdays (and lasts until 1pm) and I was lucky enough to witness its opening day for 2018.
The cheese market is in Dutch exclusively, so if you’re a foreigner who doesn’t know Dutch, it might be a bit difficult to understand what’s going on. You can ask, but I warn that you’ll be losing quite a bit of the details and it probably won’t be clear what’s going on. If you don’t mind that, visit Woerden. I honestly appreciated that they didn’t translate it as this is still oriented to the farmers rather than the tourists exclusively. The crowds are minimal and it’s free to attend.
There’s a special event for the Graskaas, a special kind of cheese, made from the first milk made from the cows who have gone outside for the first time since winter. The cheese is creamier than normal cheese and there’s a festival in early June with reenactments to celebrate this special cheese.
History of the Woerden Kaasmarkt & Boerenkaas
Woerden has historically been a city focused on livestock due to the land not being arable enough for farming. Cheese production was the focus and most farmers did business directly with their customers with the farmer setting the price themselves. In the late 1880s, the Woerden cheese market enabled farmers to fetch a higher price by selling it to the best paying merchant.
Following the 1900s, there was a major shift in the Dutch cheese industry. The farmers started selling the milk and cheese warehouses where cheese could be kept more effectively became more popular. (You can still see the cheese warehouse in Woerden!)
After World War II, the number of farmers selling their cheese themselves within the markets dropped. In Woerden, this meant that the cheese market was moved to a different location, however there are still a number of farmers selling their boerenkaas (literally farmer’s cheese) the old traditional way. In this case, it is Gouda cheese, however this is a special kind of protected cheese (boerenkaas) that can only be made when the production is done on the farm in a certain region, rather than a factory (as with many Gouda cheeses).
The difference between the cheese sold in Woerden and the famous Gouda cheese found elsewhere: all the cheese is produced entirely in house by the farmers. (I also think that the cheese tastes better!)
The traditions of Woerden Cheese Market
At the beginning of the cheese market, the Woerden Kaasbel is rung to signal that the Woerden cheese market is about to begin. The cheese bell is located near the Stadshotel. The farmers are already at the cheese market with their tractors full of cheese.
It’s typical that there’s a merchant as well as a farmer. The merchant will first inspect to cheese to test the quality in a number of ways, including making a small hole in the cheese to test the quality by tasting it. Only once the merchant is convinced of the quality, the transaction truly begins.
Then, you’ll see the famous handjeklap (handclap) method of trading, which is imitated at other cheese markets around the Netherlands. The seller first says a price and goes to slap the other’s hand. If the farmer disagrees, he turns his hand into a slap prior to countering the price. It can go for a while with both parties negotiating over the last cent. Only once the second agrees on the price offers, they shake hands instead of slapping each other’s hands.
Once the price is agreed upon, the buyer records the price in the ledger of the market. This price will only applied for this farmer’s cheese and other farmers will have the ability to negotiate their own prices. The price is the cost of the cheese per weight, so the weighing is the next step in the process.
After the cheese is sold, it must be weighed to determine final payment. In Woerden, they show the weighting with a traditional scale although I also saw an electronic scale… Once it’s weighed, the farmer must be paid and the cheese is brought to the buyer’s warehouse, where it’s kept until it’s sold by the merchant.
Where to eat in Woerden
I must say that I was impressed with the South African booth at the Farmers market in Woerden and ended up snacking on South African pastries. There’s a nice cafe brownies en downies that makes brownies with Tony’s Chocolonely fair trade chocolate. Enough said.
You’ll also find a number of Dutch restaurants, stalls with Surinamese food, and stroopwafel in the market. (Of course, you’ll find cheese.) I ended up enjoying OOK, a tattoo parlor combined with a cafe and a kitchen store. I ended up loving their quirky fusion of establishments.
Where to drink in Woerden
For beer, head to the cozy brown bar on Kerkplein, Café de Pompier. The atmosphere is really lovely and you’ll understand my intense love of brown bars if you don’t already. Alternatively, head to Drinkerij ‘t Bierhuys for more specialty beers.
Where to stay in Woerden
I ended up taking a peek into Stadshotel Woerden, a historic 4* hotel housed right on the Kerkplein in a historic armory. If you’re wincing at the hotel rates in Utrecht or Gouda, consider staying in Woerden, which is a short train ride away from both.
It’s easy to spend a half day in Woerden enjoying the city although I’d definitely recommend also taking advantage of quick train ride from Woerden to Utrecht (only 10 minutes) to make a nice day trip out of visiting Woerden. (Utrecht is one of my favorite cities in the Netherlands.)
How to get to Woerden by train
To get to Woerden from Amsterdam, you can take the train from any of the Amsterdam stations towards Utrecht Centraal where you’ll transfer to Woerden. There’s a direct train to Woerden from Amsterdam sometimes, so check ahead. It should take about 45 minutes. The trip costs 18 euros round-trip.
Have you heard of Woerden?