A Brief History of Gouda

In which I consider a career change

One of my more bizarre priorities in this pandemic-induced wilderness has been maintaining access to good cheese. Don’t roll your eyes at me, it’s a legitimate concern. (Difficult enough in non-troubled times, if you ask me.) Anyway, I did recently happen upon some quality Gouda—tangy but mild, probably pretty young—and I decided to do a bit of research into it. Over the course of my adult life I’ve sort of accidentally accumulated knowledge on the history and practice of cheesemaking, so I thought why not give it an intentional go this time.

But I absolutely had no idea what I was in for with Gouda.

It is a cow’s-milk cheese hailing from the Netherlands and taking its name from a Dutch city; technically the g is pronounced like a guttural h (think the h in ‘human’; the same goes for van Gogh, but I doubt native English speakers are ever going to come around to either). Written records of it first appeared in 1184, in the Geschichte des Käses, or ‘Book of Cheeses’—because, of course, ‘Dutch’ is only a corrupted form of ‘deutsch,’ or German. (For the record, I translated that easily, thanks to my growing German vocabulary. Enough about me.) This makes it one of the oldest known and named cheeses still produced today.

Likely due to that elevated historical status, certain aspects of its production are protected by regional law, as well as by a Protected Geographical Indication from the EU. (And, I suspect, by the memories of women; cheesemaking was originally a task imposed on women, ergo a female-dominated industry. What a power behind the throne we turned out to be.) Although a lot of Gouda, like a lot of other cheeses, is made industrially by now, there remains in the Netherlands a group of about three hundred farmers designated to continue on the traditional method of making boerenkaas (‘farmers’ cheese’ in Dutch) with unpasteurized milk.

And the auxiliary traditions that accompany this process are almost unbelievable. For starters, I was basically assuming that the cheese was named for the place where it was made until I found out that Gouda, South Holland, is merely the place where it is traded. Since the Middle Ages, the city has held market rights (originally feudal rights) to more or less monopolize the sale of this particular cheese. Which means that on Thursdays from June through August, 10:00 a.m.-12:30 p.m., for centuries on end, farmers have gathered in the city to have their cheeses tested, weighed, and priced.

Who gets to do all that testing, weighing, and pricing? Is that the job I’m destined for??

(How are they going to do it this year, if people aren’t allowed to—no, don’t get ahead of yourself! You’ll freak them out! Just tell the story!)

So, on such a Thursday, the market square in Gouda would teem with farmers looking to sell their wares and customers looking to buy them, as well as ‘cheese-porters’ (yep, that’s a thing) wearing colorful straw hats and toting the cheeses in wheelbarrows to be weighed. (I was personally hoping they’d just roll the cheese wheels down the cobblestoned streets, which would look awesome, but I guess would be kind of unsanitary.) Potential buyers would then sample the cheeses and employ a system of negotiating prices by performing something called, in Dutch, handjeklap. Look like something to do with hand-clapping? That’s because it is. The buyer and seller would clap each other’s hands and yell out prices until they reached an agreement. I really hope they kept yelling until they happened to say a single figure in unison.

A whole crowd in the center of the city, high-fiving, shouting out numbers, eventually leaving with huge blocks of cheese. Can you imagine?

I’m not entirely sure any of this extra negotiation happens today, but it certainly happened once upon a time, and the current industry—at least the historically-preserved one—bears the mark of the ritual. If there’s such a thing as a heartwarming capitalist tale, this one just about hits the bullseye.

Gouda of all ages continues to be enjoyed in different ways in its native country. Relatively young Gouda is an everyday snack; once it reaches about ten months it tends to be dressed up with sugars and syrups, and after twelve months it is often consumed alongside a good beer or port wine.

If only we could respect the aging of people the way we respect the aging of cheese.

Dang, now I’m hungry.

Image: from cheesemaking.com (really!)

Published by Cecilia Gigliotti

Cecilia Gigliotti (she/her) lives in Berlin with a beloved ukulele named Uke Skywalker. She co-hosts and produces the music commentary podcast POD SOUNDS. Her free time goes toward dancing, reading books new and old, drawing cartoons, taking city walks, and devoting too much thought to the foibles of her heroes. Connect with her on Instagram (@c_m_giglio, @ceciliagphotography, @pod_sounds_podcast) and see what else she's up to (linktr.ee/ceciliagigliotti).

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