The Amazing Origins of Dutch Cheese

While cheese may not be one of the first things that people think of when they think of the Netherlands, many of the world’s most popular cheeses, including Gouda and Edam, are Dutch. In fact, despite its small size, the mighty Netherlands is the world’s largest cheese exporter, sending over 200 million kilos of cheese to other countries every year. The Dutch cheese industry dates back to the Golden Age of the 1700s, and shapes the world we live in today.

Origins of Dutch Cheese

The early history of cheese in the Netherlands is similar to the origins of all cheese-producing countries and regions. Milk is an extremely valuable commodity, but, particularly in centuries prior to refrigeration, it is highly perishable. Because dairy animals produce milk every day, regardless of market demand, farmers needed to use the milk in other dairy products that have a longer shelf life and added value. Cheese is the natural solution. 

The Netherlands is an ideal dairy country, with a landscape, ecosystem, and climate that naturally foster healthy, highly productive cows and dairy animals. Early cheese production was a family business, with women and children staying home and making dairy products while the men tended the farm and went to market. 

Over time, village cheese markets became more famous and more formalized. In the 1500s, cheese production was organized into trade guilds, and markets developed strict rules regarding cheese production, quality, and trade. 

These cheese markets still operate in the Netherlands today, and are popular tourist destinations, as well as playing an important role in the local dairy economy. Dutch cheeses are named for their markets (rather than by the place or method of production), so famous Dutch cheeses like Gouda, Edam, and Leyden are named for the market where they were traded. 

In modern times, many Dutch cities retain their famous cheese markets and the traditional roles of the guilds, while also adopting contemporary European standards and protected designations that certify the quality and standards of Dutch cheese. 

Most Famous Dutch Cheeses

  • Beemster. Beemster became a dairy region in the 1600s, when the famous Beemster polder reclaimed the land from below sea level. The resulting meadows have mineral-rich grasses that give the cheese a distinctive flavor. Beemster is a Dutch cheese that was never popularized at a market, but instead has been defined and popularized by local dairy cooperatives. One of these cooperatives has an exclusive agreement to provide milk for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in Europe. Beemster is a hard, aged, crystalline cheese with a complex flavor and smooth mouth feel. It can pair with any sturdy, rich red or white wine, and is also a great choice for dessert wine and sweets.
  • Edam. Edam is a semi-hard cheese that can age indefinitely without spoiling, so it dominated the world cheese trade in the 14th to 18th centuries, earning a place in every cargo hold on every voyage. The flavor is mild and nutty when young, growing sharper with age. It’s a favorite to pair with stone fruits and melons, along with crisp white and sparkling wines. 
  • Gouda. Gouda is arguably the most famous Dutch cheese, accounting for more than 50% of the cheese eaten around the world. The term “gouda” has become synonymous with a wide range of cheeses made in the Dutch style, but the term “Gouda Holland” has a protected status, and can only be made in the Netherlands using milk from Dutch cows. Young and aged goudas are distinctly different cheeses, as are goudas produced in the Netherlands and goudas produced in the United States. 
  • Leyden. Leyden cheese, or Leidse kaas, is very similar to Gouda, but has a lower fat content. It is flavored with cumin seeds, and sometimes caraway or cloves are also added, for a tangy, spicy flavor that distinguishes it from most other Dutch cheeses. This hard cheese is buttery, tangy, and has an incredible flavor that works well on a cheese board, and pairs well with beer and dark bread.  

Dutch Cheeses in the World

Today, Dutch cheese accounts for about 8% of the country’s trade surplus, and exports are worth over 3 billion Euros per year. Traditionally, the bulk of the Netherlands cheese trade has been within northern Europe, with Germany, France, and the UK being key export destinations, as well as large exports to the United States. 

Due to slow population growth in the Netherlands and northern Europe, recent years have seen an increase in Dutch cheese trade with Asia, most notably in Japan. 

Dutch Cheeses and the Environment

The elimination of milk quotas in 2015 led to a huge increase in dairy and cheese production in the Netherlands. This had the side effect of increasing the country’s phosphate levels above environmental protection targets in 2017 and 2018. 

This balance between the needs of the economy and the needs of the environment is still being negotiated today, as farmers protest nitrogen and phosphate limits while worldwide demand for high-quality cheese is still growing. However, the Netherlands has an incredible history of innovating agricultural production methods to increase production while using fewer resources, and the Dutch are up to the challenge.