Holland is a sort of heaven for cheesemaking. The country’s year-round rainfall, relatively temperate climate and lush green grass provides an ideal environment for dairy cows to thrive. In fact, most of the milk goes towards making Dutch cheese. Archaeologists have found remains of cheesemaking equipment dating back to 200 B.C., and in 80 BC, Julius Caesar sung the praises of Dutch cheese in his book “Bellum Gallicum”.
By the Middle Ages, making and trading cheese had assumed a central position in Dutch life, and Holland became a world leader in the dairy industry, a position it enjoys today. The Netherlands produces 650 million kilos—1433 pounds—of cheese every year. That’s a whole lot for a small country of 17 million people, and a significant amount of that cheese gets shipped and enjoyed around the world.
Gouda and Edam are named after the towns where they are sold, rather than where they were made. In the Middle Ages, certain municipalities held exclusive rights to weigh and sell cheese. The historic kaasmarkts, cheese markets, of Alkmaar, Gouda, Edam and Woerden were, and still are, commercial and tourist hubs. Today, you’ll find wheels of cheese and traders in traditional Dutch garments filling the town square.
A Wide World of Gouda
When you think Dutch cheese, chances are you think Gouda, which is the most popular cheese in Holland and one of the most beloved wheels around the world. Gouda makes up more than half of Dutch cheese production.
In general, Dutch cheeses tend to be mild, milky and approachable. Edam, the second-most produced Dutch cheese, fits this description. From North of the Netherlands, it has a savory-sweet flavor with a hint of nuttiness and a creamy, smooth texture. Springy and supple when young, it develops a drier, more crumbly consistency as it matures. Its approachable taste makes Edam a great choice for kids and a friendly, crowd-pleasing cheese.
Gouda is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, too. Young Gouda is semi-soft, with the fresh flavor of milk shining through. The cheese intensifies in both flavor and hardness as it ripens. About 10 pounds of milk is used to produce 1 pound of Gouda. In the process of making Gouda, the curds get washed with hot water and then pressed. That washing removes some of the lactose, which means less lactose in the cheese for lactic bacterium to convert into lactic acid as the cheese ages. This results in a sweeter cheese that only becomes sweeter as it matures, as opposed to cheeses like cheddar and Parmigiano Reggiano, which take on sharper, tangier notes with time.
Small crunchy deposits—cheese crystals—are another benefit of the aging process. Crystallization happens when proteins in the cheese meet and form something called a nucleation site, or tyrosine and calcium lactate deposits that make for crunchy goodness.
Gouda itself encompasses a broad array of styles. Traditionally a cow’s milk cheese, makers now craft wheels with cow, sheep or goat’s milk. The cheese can be milky, fresh and young, or aged for many years for that unique sweet, concentrated flavor. Much of Dutch Gouda is produced on a large scale, but farmhouse and artisanal makers also bring their lovingly-made wheels to the table.
While Gouda has its roots in the Netherlands, the cheese can be made anywhere in the world. The name “Gouda” is not protected under European or international law, although Noord-Hollandse Gouda is a PDO-protected designation of origin, Gouda Holland is PGI-protected geographical indication (a much larger territory than PDO).
Rhonda Gothberg, owner and cheesemaker at Gothberg Farms, based in Bow, WA, was one such cheesemaker crafting quality Gouda from her own herd of goats three miles inland from Samish Bay in Washington State’s northern Skagit Valley. Gothberg began her operation in 2004 and retired in 2019, although she is still selling her aged cheeses.
Gothberg was working as a nurse and a realtor when she took a cheesemaking class at Washington State University and fell in love. She purchased her cheesemaking equipment from a Dutch producer, who shared a recipe for goat Gouda, which happened to be one of Gothberg’s favorite cheeses. “I was given a winner of a recipe, it worked beautifully, and I never looked back,” Gothberg remembers.
Even those who were skeptical about goat cheese embraced Gouda, which felt familiar. Gothberg calls her goat’s milk Gouda a “gateway cheese…It is and was a top seller for us,” she says. “The cheese is incredibly versatile. I’ve made it raw, pasteurized, flavored, young and aged.”
Gothberg experienced enormous success with flavored Goudas, from the more classic dill and garlic to esoteric combinations, including spicy brown mustard seed brined in stout from a local brewery and a cinnamon-scented Gouda with maple syrup that paired gorgeously with apples.
The artisanal Dutch cheese company Beemster crafts its cheese in North Holland’s Beemster Polder, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Beemster takes the artisanal approach on a larger scale. The animals spend more than 180 days per year, for 10 hours per day, feasting on picturesque Dutch meadows—significantly more than the industry standard for grass-fed of 120 days per year for six hours each day. In the winter, the herds enjoy roomy stables and plenty of fresh air and light. They even get massaged with special cow brushes. Beemster’s animals receive humane treatment and are never administered added hormones or antibiotics.
In addition to more classic young and aged Goudas, Beemster offers a smoked Gouda, slow smoked over hickory wood in the U.S., a Hatch Pepper Gouda and a Pumpkin Spice Gouda. Its Vlaskaas is historically made once a year to celebrate the flax harvest. A traditional Dutch cheese inspired centuries ago by the exotic spice trade, Leyden Gouda is made with cumin that imparts a fragrant aroma.
Super aged Goudas are also sought after by consumers for the sweet, condensed, nearly candy-like flavor and crunchy crystallized texture. Beemster XO is aged for at least 26 months, during which time it takes on notes of whiskey, butterscotch and caramel.
Old Amsterdam is a brand of the Westland Cheese Co., a family-owned business from Huizen (Holland) that originated in 1936. Old Amsterdam is its flagship brand, exported to more than 65 countries around the world. It just debuted a new cheese, Old Amsterdam Reserve. It is matured for upwards of 18 months to coax out rich flavors of bourbon and pecan and a firm, crumbly texture, studded with lots of crystals. These aged Goudas are cheese board standouts, especially with sweet and spicy roasted nuts and grainy mustard.
Marketing and Merchandising
Gouda’s versatility makes it perfect for many applications, from cheese and charcuterie boards to cooking and melting. “Gouda makes a great host gift, and is perfect on almost any cheese plate,” says Gothberg. Its adaptability also makes many cross merchandising possibilities appealing, relevant and effective.
Finding and promoting the thread that ties the featured products together is the key to merchandising Gouda like a pro. Sample hard-not-to-love snacks, like Gouda and apricot jam piled high atop a crisp cracker. For a more savory bite, try mango chutney or grainy mustard with the cheese.
White Burgundy and Chardonnay share butterscotch and caramel tones that match those in the aged Gouda, and a heartier, fruit-forward red, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, also makes for a great pairing. Aged Gouda and whiskey and bourbon share rich flavors and make for a great grownup treat. When it comes to beers, malty doppelbocks and stouts echo aged Gouda’s concentrated punch.
Gouda melts beautifully, and it shines on a Gouda and apple grilled-cheese sandwich, or speck and Gouda panini. It’s a decadent addition to cheesy grits, melted on potato dishes or grated atop grilled veggies.Gouda bridges the gap between an everyday cheese and a special treat. It’s a standout that’s hard not love, and will have customers coming back for more (and more and more). DB