South Holland’s a reliable place when it comes to family holidays. You know you’re going to get satisfying food: pancakes, siroopwafels, poffertjes (which are essentially pancakes again, but small versions) and chips. The cycling’s well-designed for little legs, with flat cycle paths, well away from cars. And there are several pretty, canal-strewn towns – like Gouda, Delft and Rotterdam – all within easy reach of each other. On our recent trip to the Netherlands, we visited a few of these places; but, rather than blending in to the morass of quaint Dutch towns, Gouda was a surprise. Like the other towns, it’s full of tradition, but it also manages to have a hip European modern twist.
We were drawn to Gouda by its cheese market, which takes place every Thursday morning, from April through to August. Gouda cheese has been traded on the Goudse kaasmarkt for more than three centuries, with farmers travelling in to the town square, to trade and have their cheese weighed in front of the old town hall.
To the non-Dutch speaker, the market is somewhat baffling. Clog-wearing women in traditional dress stand in the centre, gazing into the crowds of tourists circling the neatly arranged stacks of lemony orange Gouda wheels. Are they guarding the cheese, or just posing for photo opps? Swarthy, gruff-looking farmers ride in on horse-drawn carriages, then two of them dismount and have what looks like a hand-slapping battle (called handjeklap, apparently – it’s all part of the bartering process). In the background, a man commentates through a microphone, with the galloping pace of an auctioneer. And then, just as the cheese ‘auctioneer’ reaches a crescendo, a farmer comes along and thrusts a 15-kilo wheel of Gouda into your young child’s hands…..
The wheel of cheese turned out to be made of polystyrene. But we were worried for a brief moment.
Here’s a little video I made of our trip to Gouda, showing the cheese market in action.
On the morning of our visit, there was a competition to guess the weight of the Gouda, and win a wheel of the good stuff. If you weren’t lucky enough to walk away with a whole cheese, there was plenty of opportunity to sample Gouda of all varieties and ages. 60% of all Dutch cheese comes from Gouda; as well as the stalls flanking the town square on market day, there are several permanent cheese shops in the town, where you can try before you buy.
Gouda is a complex cheese, with seven ages of maturity, ranging from the young, nutty, slightly rubbery variety, similar in texture to Edam; to the ‘oude Gouda’, matured for 10-12 months or more, and with the heavy salted taste and crystalline texture of Parmesan. As well as different ages, you can find smoked varieties, and an vast range of added ingredients, like beetroot, peppercorns and fennel (my personal favourite). If we had more time to spend in Gouda, we would have paid a visit to the Goudse Waag, a building dating back to 1668 which now houses the cheese and artisanal crafts museum.
Lego and smurf ice cream
But Gouda isn’t all about the cheese. A walk around the historic cobbled streets reveals a few hip treasures, like Den Gouwen Aar, where you can sample craft ale in the beer-tasting room, or buy Gouda herb beer. It’s not exactly modern – beer was brewed on the premises as long ago as 1561 – but what could be more hip than locally sourced craft beer?
Around the streets are quirky little touches, like this sign:
We were also pleased to discover Play today, a Lego specialist shop with hundreds of kits lining its walls. There seemed to be a proper little community in action there; the staff were mega-friendly, and there was a room at the back of the shop where a group of regulars were working together on a complicated build. For those who wanted to make something a little less inolved than the Star Wars Millennium Falcon, you could pay a Euro to build your own figure, which our children happily set about doing.
And then, there was a the Smurf ice cream. Purchased at a so-so restaurant on the edge of the town square, it was a bright, neon blue and tasted of plastic. I’d never come across it before, and I haven’t since. My son loved it, though, as you can see in this video….
So, for the Smurf ice cream, your wonderful, baffling cheese market and your hipster surprises, Gouda: I thank you.
Have you visited Gouda?
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