There’s no denying that Dutch cheese (Nederlandse kaas) is famous worldwide. Together with windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes, it is most likely one of the first things that come to mind for many when they think of the Netherlands.
Believe it or not, “cheese tourism” is a real thing in the Netherlands! But why is Dutch cheese so famous? And what is the difference between jong, jong belegen and oud?
Let me tell you all you need to know about Dutch cheese.
The Origins of Dutch Cheese
The earliest cheese in the Netherlands was produced as early as 800 BC. Actually, cheese production was already going on in other parts of the world much earlier than this date. However, once the Dutchies started to make cheese, there was no stopping them.
One of the main reasons is that the soil in the Netherlands proved very suitable for it. The lowlands, often below sea level, resulted in wetlands that were very suited for quality grass growth. This resulted in cow farming and, subsequently, milk and cheese production.
In the Middle Ages, cheese production developed further, including creating cheese with a high shelf life. These cheeses with a firm consistency were ideal for export, and that’s how people all over the world got exposed to Dutch cheese.
The Importance of Cheese to Dutchies
The high quality and good reputation of Dutch cheese have resulted in a large portion of it being exported. In addition to flowers, cheese is an important export product for Holland. Production has grown to almost 1 million metric tons annually, and around 90% of that is exported. Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands is the second largest cheese exporter in the world. For this reason, Dutch cheese is also known as “yellow gold.”
But even on a consumer level, cheese is important to the Dutch. On average, they eat around 21 kilos of cheese per year! The majority of cheese is consumed as a sandwich filling (the famous Dutch broodje kaas), but eating cheese cubes as a snack during gatherings and parties is also very popular.
Dutch Cheese Markets
Traditionally, Dutch cheese was traded in open markets in various cities. These cities were the places that had “weighing rights” for cheese.
The cities where cheese markets developed were mainly situated in the Northern provinces. Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam, Hoorn, and Woerden used to be the most famous cheese markets. Interestingly, the oldest markets were Haarlem (1266), Leiden (1303), and Oudewater (1326).
The only active cheese market these days is Alkmaar, where visitors can see how the market was traditionally operated. But as mentioned, cheese tourism is a big thing here, so you can go visit a cheese museum, take a boat cruise specifically for wine and cheese tasting, visit a cheese farm, and others.
5 Most Popular Dutch Cheeses
Gouda cheese is the most popular cheese in the Netherlands (and it’s the most exported cheese too). It is only produced in the country and according to a specific recipe. The fat content needs to be 48% (indicated as 48+). Other popular cheeses are Edam, Old Amsterdam, Milner, and Leidse cheese.
Edam cheese is produced in a spherical shape, while most other Dutch cheeses have a round, flattened shape. Most foreigners know the cheese to be red since it gets a paraffin coating for export. Edam cheese is considered a mild-tasting cheese.
Old Amsterdam is a premium old cheese. It’s actually a brand name, and in reality, it’s a Gouda cheese according to a specific recipe. Also, contrary to the name, this cheese is not made in Amsterdam.
Milner cheese is popular because it is a light cheese. People who want to eat cheese but don’t want to consume a lot of fat choose this cheese. It’s made from semi-skimmed milk, which means it contains 40% less fat than the other 48+ kinds of cheese.
Leidse cheese is one of the oldest cheeses in the Netherlands. It contains cumin so it’s often referred to as cumin cheese (even though there are also other cheese types that contain cumin). It is produced from skim milk that remains after butter manufacturing.
The above may be the most popular, but there are A LOT of Dutch cheese varieties in the Netherlands. Depending on who you talk to, cheese varieties range from 30 to nearly 100. This is because every producer has their own special cheese recipe, and someone somewhere is always experimenting and coming up with new varieties.
Cheese Ages: Jong, Belegen, Oud
An important step in cheese production is what’s called ripening or aging. This part of the process largely contributes to the resulting taste of the cheese product.
Cheese is stored in special warehouses to ripen. During this process, moisture is removed from the cheese to improve the taste. (Don’t worry, they get a coating to prevent complete dehydration and prevent mold.)
Typically, the cheeses are placed on wooden shelves to help absorb the moisture from the cheese. They are also regularly turned over to get a consistent product. Other important factors are humidity, airflow, and temperature in the warehouse, but basically, the longer a cheese ripens, the tastier the cheese (less water content); the “younger” the cheese, the creamier (more water content).
Cheese ripening takes time and a lot of care. For this reason, older or more mature cheeses are more expensive.
So how long do Dutch cheeses ripen? There are three main classifications for Dutch cheese, jong (young), belegen (ripened), and oud (old). The ripening time per type varies, but, in general:
- Jong means 4-6 weeks
- Belegen means 14-18 weeks
- Oud means 10 to 14 months
Combinations of these terms are used to indicate overlapping ripening times between these three main classifications. For example, jong belegen normally means 8 to 10 weeks of ripening time, while extra belegen means 7 to 8 months. And yes, there are cheeses that take even longer than oud aging. These are called overjarige kaas (overaged cheese), which means they’ve aged for 18 months or more.