Edam is a city in the Dutch province of Noord-Holland that is famous as the original source of the cheese with the same name. Recently, we spent a day in Edam walking cobblestone streets, sampling fresh cheeses made daily and enjoying a city that looks today much like it did decades ago.
“Edam is a city with a rich history. It began in the 12th century, when farmers and fishermen settled along the little Ye river. With that, ‘Yedam’ was a fact. This primitive settlement developed into an increasingly prosperous town well into the 17th century,” says Edam.com, a website devoted to the city.
Edam cheese was the most popular cheese in the world from the 14th to 17th centuries, especially at sea and in the colonies far away. Sealed in wax, the Edam cheese could mature very well so it was easy to bring along to eat while traveling. We brought some home too, sneaking right through customs, while drug-sniffing dogs were on the prowl for tourists that might have visited Amsterdam, where marijuana is virtually legal.
Legend has it that Edam cheese became even more popular when used as bullets for cannons. “True or not, it is a fact that the Edam cheese is very strong, big and round and has the same shape as a bullet. Edam cheese thanks its name to the harbor where the cheese was sold most (harbor of Edam),” adds Edam.com.
The Edam cheese of today is not the same cheese as the original. Since the 19th century Edam is no longer made from full milk but from partly skimmed milk. The fat percentage of the Edam cheese is lower (40%) than the fat percentage of similar Gouda cheese (48%). Over the years, Edam replaced the strong-flavored farmer’s product with a softer, factory-made cheese.
In Edam, architecture that dates back to the 12th century wraps around shops selling everything from Dutch chocolate to Tulip bulbs and fresh flowers as we see in this photo gallery.
Today, Edam is visually much like it has been for decades and serves as a bedroom community for residents commuting back and forth to Amsterdam. Walking through a very quiet Edam, it was hard to believe that the city was once a bustling whaling port with more than 30 shipyards. Now, still covered with narrow streets, small bridges and canals, tourism is the major economic force but cheese still the major export and star of the show.
Edam’s Kaasmarkt (cheese market) event is one of five in the Netherlands and once sold 250,000 rounds of cheese. Reenactments of markets for tourists have Dutch cheese farmers who traditionally brought their cheeses to town to sell. During the market, teams of official guild cheese-porters, identified by differently colored straw hats associated with their company, carried the farmers’ cheese on stretchers, which typically weighed about 160 kilograms (about 350 pounds).
Buyers then sampled the cheeses and negotiated a price using a ritual system called handjeklap in which buyers and sellers clap each others’ hands, shout prices and agree on a price. Once a price is agreed, the porters carry the cheese to the weighing house and scale of their company as we see in this video.
The cheese shops have free samples for tasting along with an assortment of touristy souvenirs ranging from Dutch chocolate, wooden shoes (still used by some) and hand-crafted dolls to cheese slicers. All can be shipped back to the United States legally.
Photos: Chris Owen