SF Bay Area
Food and drink that has us seeing gold
When traveling to another country, it's polite to learn at least a few native words like "please," "excuse me," "thank you," and the critical "where is the bathroom?"
But the two most important Dutch words you can know (in my humble opinion) are lekker and kaas. Lekker is one of those all-encompassing positive words meaning tasty, cool, or luscious. Sometimes there's a lusty side to it, which shouldn't come as a surprise. And then there's kaas, which means cheese. Oh, kaas. To us turophiles, cheese is so lekker — in every sense of the word.
The Dutch know their cheese.
Any traveler with the merest sense of taste should take a nibble, a slice, a dollop — OK, a 10-kilo, waxy wheel or two — of what this country does so well. Yes, there's Amsterdam, which like any world-renowned metropolis, has more than its share of fine cheese shops. But you can also follow the cheese crumbs along the lesser beaten paths, which leads you to the historic town of Gouda* in South Holland, known worldwide for their creamy cow cheese.
Gouda is the holy grail of cheese: 60 percent of Dutch cheese originates in Gouda. It's the cheese capital (kaaspital?) of The Netherlands. Lekker, lekker, lekker ... ad infinitum.
Go when you can experience the historic cheese market, which is between 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. every Thursday from April 7 to Sept. 1 (except on Ascension Day, May 5). See how the cheeses are carted in on traditional wagons known as briks, and how the farmers and merchants negotiate deals with hand slaps in front of the Goudse Waag, or Gouda Weigh House.
They roll out dozens of wax-sealed Gouda cheese wheels, perched on platforms on the town square's cobblestones, shining orange for the crowd, amid vendors selling more portable sizes of cheese in a dozen or more flavors.
Each of those wheels is about 10 kilos, around 25 pounds.
Many vendors offer samples, but the winner of all samples are the nibbles carried by the young woman clomping around in wooden clogs dressed as an old-school cheese maiden.
Besides the chance to stand on the human-sized balance scale made of two wooden platforms and rope as thick as your wrist, the weigh house building has a cheese and crafts museum and gift shop with all the cheese tea towels, knives, mugs, and magnets your creamy heart desires.
Then, you must meander over to the best of a handful of brick-and-mortar cheese shops away from the pop-up market: The Cheese Shop ('t Kaaswinkeltje) is the only shop in the Netherlands that sells exclusively Gouda farmers' cheese. There's no pasteurizing, so the cheese retains maximum flavor. You can taste little chunks of almost every cheese they sell, all still made according to traditional methods on farms in the vicinity of Gouda. Some look less traditional, such as the lavender-infused cheese in an admittedly artificially colored blue hue resembling a Smurf.
Despite the color, the lavender cheese actually tastes quite subtle. (No, really!) You can choose aged cheeses, which have a sharper flavor, or young, creamier versions. They sell accompaniments such as figgy nut wheels, which complement Gouda nicely. The cheesemonger can vacuum-seal your chosen cheeses for shipping and preventing spoilage.
Continue on the less-trodden trail on to Rotterdam, which is filled with much fewer historic buildings than Amsterdam due to World War II bombings. Find the Markthal Rotterdam, a feat of modern architecture and mixed-use development. Within a tubelike apartment complex with restaurants on the first two floors is a culinary marketplace with traditional Dutch foods as well as offerings from across the world. You can gape at the cheese or at the vivid art splashed across the rounded wall-ceiling dotted with windows from people's apartments.
Then you can return to the source of all this delicious cheese, to the verdant, flat farmland of the Netherands. Visit Boerderij 't Geertje, a goat (plus pigs, cows, chickens) farm with all the fresh goat cheese you could want. It's an interactive place in Zoeterwoude about 30 minutes south of Amsterdam, where families with young children as well as adults can pay a single Euro for a bottle of goat milk to feed the baby goats. Frolicking with the little furry, frisky things is free. *Cue awww.*
Adults will love the cheese gift shop, where you can choose all sorts of young and old cheese and treats such as stroopwafels, those popular thin-waffled caramel sandwich cookies.
And DO NOT miss the chocolate truffles with whipped goat cheese inside each delectable morsel, dusted in (probably) Dutch cocoa. You will get your mouth and hands dusty with cocoa, and you will sigh with utter bliss.
You can have a nice cheese sandwich on hearty country bread at the goat farm's restaurant.
... and finish with an ice cream made with goat's milk. That's not technically cheese, but it's so creamy! The place is truly idyllic — as is much of the pastoral Dutch countryside.
Almost anywhere you go in the Netherlands, you'll find it stocked full with lekker kaas, indeed.
* Gouda is pronounced with a guttural "gh" and the vowels sound like cow (not like the vowels in soon).
NYC-based multimedia journalist focusing on food and fitness. I was formerly the assistant editor at Chowhound, and I write freelance articles for publications such as USA Today, Brooklyn Magazine, and Westchester Magazine. I also assist award-winning bloggers and authors of cookbooks such as Smitten Kitchen and Toast.