In 1365, the city owned one pair of cheese scales only, but this increased to four in 1612. The kaasdragersgilde (cheese carrier’s guild) is first mentioned in the archives in 1619. 1593, however, is considered the first year of the cheese market, which has always taken place on the Waagplein. This square has been extended several times in the course of two centuries, it was enlarged no fewer than eight times before it reached its current dimensions, which proves the importance of cheese trade for the city.
In the 17th century, cheese was traded on Fridays and Saturdays from May until All Saint’s Day, and in the 18th century on four days a week.
The cheese market opens to the public at 10 am, but much work is involved prior to this. Lorries filled with cheese from the Campina and Cono factories drive to the Waagplein.
So-called “kaaszetters” (setters) start putting up the cheeses as early as 7 am. Everything must be on display in the market at 9.30 am.
Cheese carriers are required to be present at the Waaggebouw (weighing house) at 7 am, but in reality only the kaaszetters are on time. Cheese carriers arrive at 9.30 am. Those arriving too late are stated on the “stocks” and are required to pay a fine which is collected by the “provost marshal”. The provost marshal punishes the cheese carriers if they are too late or break the rules. Part of the money collected in fines is used by the guild to sponsor a school in the small city of Alkmaar in Surinam. The remainder goes to the guild.
At 9.30, the cheese father, head of the four forwarding companies, gives a talk to the cheese carriers in the Waaggebouw, stating the number of metric tons of cheese on the market and whether important guests, journalists, or TV crews will be present. He makes a roll call to see whether the guild is complete or whether anyone is sick, and divides the forwarding companies over the market, the part of the market where the cheese carriers are to work.
The bell rings on the stroke of 10 am, the sign indicating the start of the cheese market. The ringing of the bell is done by people who are invited by the municipality of Alkmaar. This ranges from known Dutch artists to famous athletes and foreign ambassadors to business partners of the municipality of Alkmaar.
As soon as the market opens, the samplers and traders go to work. Inspecting cheese is more than just looking at its exterior. Cheese is knocked on and a special cheese scoop used to obtain a piece, which is then crumbled between the fingers and smelled. And, naturally, it is tasted to assess the relation between taste, and the percentages of fat and moisture. After the cheese has been cut, the number of holes - also known as eyes - are inspected. The holes in cheese are caused by non-harmful lactic acid bacteria during the maturing of the cheese. A perfect cheese has eyes that are evenly spread throughout. A cheese without eyes, known as a blind cheese, is considered to be of inferior quality.
Price bargaining per kilo is still done by means of clapping hands: bargaining by clapping one another’s hands and shouting prices. The last clap clinches the sale of a batch of cheese.
Once the deal is closed, cheese carriers use a barrow to take the sold cheese to the Waag, where it is weighed in the Waaggebouw. Currently, there are three pairs of scales: the lower, middle, and upper scale.
The tasman (purse man) weighs the cheese, and the waagmeester (weighing master), a public servant, supervises the correct weight being passed on to the buyer; the motto of the Alkmaar cheese carrier guild being “Een valse Waghe is de Heere een gruwel” (a false balance is an abhorrence in the eyes of the Lord).
The “tasman” is positioned at the scales and can be recognised by the purse around his waist. Cheese used to be paid to him, hence the purse. After weighing, he marks the barrow with cheese by stamping a check mark on it.
Once the batch is sold and weighed, the cheese carriers carry the cheese across the market to the buyers’ lorries.
Cheese is transported on the wooden barrow hanging between two cheese carriers, holding about 8 Gouda cheeses, each of them weighing 13,5 kilos. Carrying a heavy barrow (25 kilos)weighing about 130 kilos is not easy. The carriers walk with a special “cheese carriers’dribble”, a particular walking rhythm to make it easier. They step out of time as it were, ensuring the barrow hangs as still as possible.
The last cheeses are loaded in carts by “ingooiers” (loaders) who then take them back to the haulier’s lorry. The entire square must be emptied of cheese before the end of the cheese market at 13.00 pm, to allow for chairs to be set out at the outdoor cafés.