January 16, 2024
Dutch Cheese - its a big deal.
Cheese, you will agree, is quintessentially Dutch – or at least, that’s what the Dutch like to think. They are convinced that their Gouda and Edam are not only world-famous but also the alpha and omega, the standard against which all cheeses are measured. This conviction is strong even in well-traveled Dutch people. Well, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of national pride.
The funny thing is that the Dutch have a rather peculiar relationship with the flagship product, which is cheese – peculiar in that there are basically only two possible uses for it. You can either use that pinnacle of Dutchness (the cheese shaver) to slice it in order to make a cheese sandwich, or you can take a knife and dice it in order to serve as a snack with a festive drink, preferably at what my revered colleague Stuart Billinghurst refers to so aptly as a "circle party," another extremely Dutch phenomenon.
Wait. I realize that not all of you may have read all seventy- four preceding issues of DUTCH the magazine cover to cover. Stuart, whose columns I personally never fail to read, once described a phenomenon the Dutch refer to as verjaardagen (literally birthdays), which in Dutch eyes are not dates at all, but rather a particular and uniquely Dutch style of partying that consists of putting a large number of chairs in a circle in a sitting room (moving all other furniture as far to the side as possible except for the coffee table, which stands in the center of the circle). Every guest takes a seat somewhere in the circle and waits to be offered tea or coffee (served twice, the first time with a slice of birthday cake), followed by "something stronger," which is usually either wine or beer. Nothing else. One is not supposed to leave one’s initial seat, which unfortunately, for foreigners, is just one of myriad unwritten rules that every Dutch person knows and understands instinctively.
(Now that I’m at it, I might as well also explain that the cheese shaver is actually a Norwegian and not a Dutch invention – a fact that your average Dutchman will have an even harder time believing in than Sinterklaas, but I’m once more diverging.) To wrap up what preceded: the Dutch way with cheese is to either slice or dice. But what about soft cheese then?
Oh, but wait! That’s not cheese. That’s French cheese and a totally different proposition. No, not kidding here: the Dutch differentiate between ‘regular cheese,’ which is cheese of the Gouda, Edam or Leiden type and ‘French cheese,’ which designates all other cheeses, including Italian Gorgonzola, Spanish Cabrales, English Stilton and German Tilsiter, and even such products as Bleu de Graven, a delicious Dutch- made blue cheese. Never mind that it’s a product from the Netherlands: it is not regular cheese and therefore ‘French cheese.’ Swiss cheese, on the other hand, does actually qualify as ‘regular cheese’ and is therefore not French.
I have personally witnessed a Dutch family in a French hotel who, apparently fed up with croissants and pains au chocolat, asked whether they couldn’t ‘just have some bread and cheese’ for breakfast. Now, while cheese is not something the French typically have in the morning, the host obliged by bringing some baguettes and a generous serving of camembert, brie and Roquefort. The consternation was worthy of a Louis de Funès movie! No, ‘regular cheese’ definitely is a way too Dutch concept to be suitable for export.
Written by Gerrit Jan Groothedde and published in issue 75 of Dutch the magazine