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Historic Alkmaar goes global as Cheese Capital of the World

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ALKMAAR, the Netherlands - With a cooking show and a number of related events, tourist organizations in the city of Alkmaar recently kicked off a world wide promotion campaign. The community wants to be known as the Cheese Capital of the World. Implied is the knowledge of course, that the Netherlands is the leading producer of cheese if not the world’s largest supplier.

For many visitors, foreign and Dutch alike, Alkmaar’s identity already intertwined with cheese, not in the least through its centuries-old Friday cheese market. The weekly touristic event draws thousands upon thousands to the North Holland city some 35 kilometres north of Amsterdam.

On the large square in front of the old cheese weigh station, people can attend what still is a lively market for and trading in the familiar cannonball-sized cheeses, often known as Edam cheese, and the larger yellow-waxed wheels.

Lacquered coloured hats

What these days is more of a spectators’ show, involves moving the cheeses - and sometimes unsuspecting tourists - on barrows to and from the weigh house. The appeal in part comes from the cheese porters dressed in white uniforms and wearing lacquered straw hats, painted in the colours of their section. The barrows also denote these sections. The tradition of colour-coding goes back a long way and also was used for other warehousing and transport employees in Holland.

One of the largest companies involved in warehousing, transport and tank storage - Vopak - has its origins in the beginning of the 17th century, when porters loading and unloading East India Company ships in Amsterdam banded together in a sort of union, known as a guild. To denote their group, they wore blue hats, for centuries since the logo of the company which through mergers and acquisitions became known as Pakhoed (hoed translates as ‘hat’), until it merged with shipper Van Omme-ren in 1999. In such port cities as Amsterdam and Rotterdam, there were also yellow and red-hatted guilds and porterage companies.

To kick off the project to make Alkmaar - which in the Netherlands already is known as the Cheese City - the world’s cheese capital, top chefs from a number of restaurants and tv shows gave cooking demonstrations on the historic Weigh Square. Of course, all the recipes used at the event included cheese.

Alkmaar’s involvement with regionally-made cheese dates back to the 16th and 17th century when the city was the area’s main trading and commercial centre. The community already existed in the 11th century, and it received its city rights from Count Willem II in 1254. It lost most of its privileges at the end of the 15th century, after it had joined the ill-fated rebellion of the Cheese and Bread People. To make matters worse, Alkmaar was plundered by Frisians, but bounced back and regained its prominence. In 1573, the city weathered a months-long siege by Spanish troops. The failure by the Spanish to bring Alkmaar back under its control proved to be the pivotal point and defining hour in the battle by the ‘rebelling’ Dutch provinces for their religious and political freedom. “At Alkmaar begins the victory,” school children were taught for centuries.