Coming from the UK, it’s always a pleasure travelling by rail in the Netherlands. I get a buzz of excitement, standing on the platform and seeing one of their double decker trains pull in. I always have to head upstairs, like a schoolboy trying to bag the back seat on a coach. It just adds to the joy of travel and, with the flat Dutch terrain, you feel like you can see for miles. It’s a pity it only took 15 minutes to ride from Rotterdam to the pretty city of Gouda.
First of all, I need to get the name right! Or do I? Locals say ‘How-da’, but after attempting the correct pronunciation – met by smirks and smiles – I was assured that the British way we say the cheese is acceptable. Gouda is a small, attractive city of cobbled medieval lanes and tree-shaded canals lined with tall, narrow, traditional Dutch houses and historic buildings. There’s a huge central square and church too. But first, the food that made Gouda famous.
“Every person who visits Gouda talks about the cheese,” TV presenter Renata Visscher told me. I learned more when I met Wendy Frie, the woman who markets the cheese and, in her spare moments, oversees the city’s Cheese Museum in the historic Weighing House, or De Goudse Waag. We sat chatting at a table on the first floor of the bustling building, which doubles as the Tourist Information Centre.
In Britain our supermarkets usually stock just one style of gouda cheese but here there’s a type for every taste. “It’s funny because we only have one sort of cheddar cheese in Holland,” Wendy explained, adding, “but when I visited the UK I was surprised how many different types of cheddar there were – and they tasted great. When you have it here it’s not so good.”
“It’s the same with gouda,” continued Wendy. “It’s a ripening process. After two weeks you can sell it as young cheese. But it can age for up to six years, when it is very strong and salty. The older the cheese gets, the more the amount of water and salt changes, so the cheese gets more flavour.”
The old gouda I tried had a powerful taste. I loved it. It had a Marmite tang, though I know that can be divisive. The Dutch eat cheese on its own. They don’t have the UK obsession with cheese boards at the end of dinner parties. “The older gouda is more like a cheese that we would have with a glass of wine or beer. You’d have it as a snack,” said Wendy. “You wouldn’t cook with it very often because of its strong flavour.”
Wendy says Gouda lies within fertile farmland, blessed with good grass and growing conditions. The cheese is also produced elsewhere in the Netherlands – it’s not exclusive to the area – but Wendy says the local product is superior. “I think Gouda makes the best gouda cheese and it has a creamy taste to it. In the northern part of Holland, the ground is drier and it is nearer the sea, with more sand. That makes the taste different.”
The historic Cheese Weighing House on the main square is a stocky, stone building decorated with colourful coats of arms and shields. It looks important and Wendy explained that it has played a major role in the economic development of the town. “Whether you’re interested in cheese or not, this building is one of the city’s architectural highlights,” she told me. “It was rebuilt in 1668 from a single-storey premises because the government decided to create something more prestigious with three floors.”
And it was impressive. I climbed the high, twisting staircase to reach the top floor where the museum’s guides inform you about traditional cheesemaking methods. There’s a video to watch, too. “It’s still the original wooden ceiling on the top floor so it has a lot of character,” said Wendy. “You can see the old implements that people used at farms to make cheese.”
They used to the weigh the huge, round cheeses downstairs before they were traded on the Market Square. Down on the ground floor you’ll find piles of them stacked on a massive scale. And in case you were wondering, an average gouda cheese weighs 10kg.
The Tourist Office in the weighing house can tell you which farms are open to tourists and Wendy says it’s best to visit before lunch. “Usually they produce cheese in the morning, when the milk comes in, so go then and you will see how it works. You can taste the cheese too.”
If you can’t travel out of town, you can sample the farmers’ product on the ground floor of the Weighing House. So I had my first of many cheese tastings of the day. “Normally we do a younger and an older cheese,” Wendy told me, as we stood behind a two-deep crowd of people with hands outstretched, hoping to grab a free shaving of the glowing yellow cheese being proffered from behind the counter on the tip of a knife. “People can taste the difference between a factory cheese and the farmers’ cheese. There is a big difference in flavour. We also have gouda cheese with cumin and herbs, chilli, pesto and more.”
A few seconds walk away is Maurice Koster’s incredible cheese shop, Gouds Kaasshuis. He switched to cheesemaking after a successful career making radio trailers and jingles. “It’s just a different way to be creative,” he beamed. Maurice clearly loves his work. He smiles and he has the stature and figure of someone who obviously has a passion for cheese! The store has a yellow hue to it as the daylight catches the golden cheese rinds stacked on his shop’s shelves and counter.
But there are more colours. I spot a rare blue gouda, alongside some vibrantly coloured cheeses. And there’s a bright turquoise one, and a pink one. “The red one is gouda with tomato and chilli,” Maurice told me. “The green one has basil and pine nuts.” There’s also a multi coloured cheese seemingly made up of little dots, like a block of confetti.
The chunk of cheese with the brilliant blue colour of bubblegum caught my attention. “It’s Smurf coloured,” Maurice laughed. I took a bite after I was assured that it wouldn’t make my tongue go blue. I had expected an artificial taste. Instead I was pleased by its mild and creamy tang, with a hint of thyme and a pleasant surprise – lavender. “It’s all natural. We colour it with blueberries,” Maurice told me with pride.
There was a bright orange cheese, coloured with carotene and then washed with caramel to make it sweet. “It takes nine months to achieve that,” Maurice told me. “That’s very Dutch!” Then I saw a packet with a distinctive leaf logo on the wrapper. It was cannabis cheese! Maurice assured me it offered the flavour without the effects. “They don’t use the tops,” he told me. Maybe that technical term means more to a Dutchman! Anyway, I was assured that I wouldn’t get arrested if I was busted with that on my cheeseboard. “Is it addictive?” I half-jokingly asked. “Probably,” Maurice laughed.
If you love cheese you have to see this shop because it’s unlike anything you’ll have seen before. “It is a candy shop for adults. It’s cheese heaven,” Maurice assured me.
So far, I’d only experienced gouda cheese in its raw form. So I headed straight across the street to the Belvedere restaurant. It’s a popular lunchtime choice. Like many Dutch cafes, there’s an awning-covered extension spreading onto the pavement of the Market Square. Most of the tables were full of people sipping on small, cloudy beers as they tucked into cheese. Sitting next to the super-efficient patio heaters, I wondered how long cheese would remain solid in the stifling heat. Then owner Luke appeared. He was clearly immune to the heat as he sat next to one of the burners.
He told me that his best seller is gouda cheese soup. “A lot of locals come by every week to eat it. It’s a thicker soup – somewhere between cheese fondue and a regular soup. It’s quite dense and if you go for a three-course meal, some people say it is too heavy. It’s served with croutons to give it a crispy taste. We also have a cheese platter for tourists featuring four different cheeses that change every month.”
Then a revelation. Luke told me he’s not keen on cheese! I suppose that’s the perfect approach for a clearly canny businessman. He wouldn’t be tempted to dip into profits by having a sneaky snack.
Belvedere also serve deep-fried cheese croquettes from which delicious hot, melted cheese spills out when you bite through the crispy coating. There’s also another fried snack, cheese fingers, or you can go for the full fondue option. There’s no medical waiver to sign. The Dutch are very liberal, aren’t they?
If you stop by for a summertime lunch you could enjoy the spectacle of the cheese auction from your ringside seat. “From April 1st until the last Thursday in August there is a cheese market in the Market Square opposite the restaurant,” Heleen de Winter from Gouda Tourism told me. “It’s held every Thursday from 10am until 12.30pm. You’ll see people dressed in the traditional farmers’ clothes. They come with horses and carts to transport the cheeses away.” Heleen said the cheese sales ritual offers visitors some unique sights and sounds. “They clap their hands to set the right price – either higher or lower.” Just remember, if you attend don’t applaud – you might make an unexpected purchase.
There’s an old wives tale that says if you eat cheese before bedtime you’ll have nightmares. I can now state that it’s untrue. I ate what felt like twice my own bodyweight in cheese in Gouda, and I slept like a log.
Gouda’s cheese has global fame but it’s one of the city’s sweet treats that’s famous throughout the Netherlands. Stroopwafel are the size of digestive biscuits and are made from two thin layers of baked dough with a caramel-like syrup in between. I was told that you should place them over your coffee mug to let the rising steam melt the syrup and make it taste even sweeter. Even sweeter. I know!
The Van den Berg Bakery and cafe is one of three remaining producers. Fifty years ago, 35 bakeries made these mid-morning snack favourites. I met Mike. He’s the sixth generation of his family to run the business since 1864. Each week, his staff crack over three thousand eggs and get through 700kg of sugar and 1000kg of butter in order to produce the waffles. They make an incredible 4.5million each year. Mike is clearly proud that they sell 85% of those waffles in his shop. “They taste best fresh,” he told me.
Stroopwafel were originally made for the less wealthy residents of the city using bakery leftovers. “Pieces of dough and cookie crumbs were put together with a very sweet syrup and they sold them at the back of the bakery to the poor. The rich people came to the front of the store. Now they are more of a luxury product.”
I entered the busy tile-floored factory, a hive of activity with white-coated workers and a Heath Robinson-like machine puffing air and whistling at regular intervals. I was amused to think that diners were relaxing and chatting in the restaurant, possibly unaware of the busy production line just a few feet away. I watched Mike make a waffle by hand in under a minute. A thick round of dough was pressed onto a waffle iron and baked for 35 seconds at 200°C. Mike retrieved the waffle and sliced it into two, then ladled on a cinnamon-infused syrup from a large pot next to the waffle iron, before sandwiching the two halves back together. It was delicious.
Back in the shop Mike showed me his stroopwafel cookbook. I was surprised what you can do with them. They make in interesting addition to a goats’ cheese salad and I could understand that – you often see goats’ cheese and honey on salads. The syrup would offer a similar taste and texture experience. Nothing goes to waste. All of Mike’s ‘broken bits’ are used in other products. “The crumbs that are left are used in stroopwafel ice cream, stroopwafel cake and also stroopwafel chocolates,” he told me.
Watching all that activity had given me a thirst. Gouda used to be famous for beer and I asked Gerard van Domselaar, owner of De Utrechtsche Dom Guesthouse, where I could find it. “All of the beer factories are gone,” said Gerard. “A hundred years ago they were everywhere. You couldn’t drink the water that came from the canals and was also used for public toilets and laundry washing. So they started to make beer,” he told me. I thought that sounded like a great excuse – drink beer because the water is not safe!
“Some people have started small breweries to make the original Gouda beer,” said Gerard. “It’s a pilsner but there are also white beers.” I followed Gerard’s tip and headed to his recommended bar. It was very near to his guesthouse, where I was staying. That was a relief. Strong beer and open-sided canals don’t really mix.
If you want to sample Gouda’s brews, I’d suggest the very friendly Biercafé De Goudse Eend – or the Gouda Duck. It’s in the Dutch equivalent of the Camra Real Ale Guide and is named after the plastic and ceramic model ducks that fill the bar. The name is a running – or maybe waddling – joke. Bar owner Jeroen relocated from a tiny Amsterdam flat to a Gouda home with a much larger bathroom and room for rubber ducks – which his friends started to buy for him in increasing numbers. The bar offers lots of great beers and the staff are very welcoming.
Walking back after a couple of excellent beers, I noticed how grand some of the houses fronting Gouda’s canals were. Their grandeur suggested that Gouda was once quite wealthy. Gerard told me that Gouda used to be richer than Amsterdam. “Two rivers come together here. One flows to the North Sea and from here you can navigate up to Amsterdam. The old sailing ships had to pass through Gouda to get to Amsterdam. Gouda made them stop for at least a night so their crew could eat, drink and sleep. That’s how the city became rich.” Gouda fell on hard times when the waterway was bypassed, as Gerard explained. “They dug a canal from the North Sea to Amsterdam, which then became our capital and everybody went there.”
There were proposals to fill in Gouda’s canals and turn them into roads in the 1970’s, but luckily most of them survived that shortsighted plan. Town planners have a lot to answer for all over Europe. In the summer, you can take a 90-minute canal boat tour, which Heleen de Winter from the tourist board recommends. “Every city looks different from the water. It’s a relaxed way to travel and you can stay dry when it’s raining because you can sit inside.” That was a reminder of how close Holland is to Britain. We share a weather-centric pessimism!
You can walk around Gouda’s canal ring to reach the Museum Harbour. Ships were once built here. Today they are repaired in the working marina area and you’ll be able to admire many old, residential houseboats berthed alongside the canal. Some are beautifully decorated.
As you walk around the canal ring you’ll spot the three windmills around the centre of the city. Windmills are in integral part of the cycle tours led by Marc Setzpfand of Green Cow Bike Tours. Marc trained as an engineer and I was keen to learn about the engineering importance of these beautiful structures.
“The main function for windmills in this part of the country was to pump water from lower to higher levels. The area where we are now is four or five meters below sea level,” Marc told me. “We also offer a day trip to the Kinderdijk windmills, a UNESCO World Heritage site where nineteen windmills are standing in a row. It is a beautiful thing to see,” said Marc.
Marc feels the Gouda area offers perfect cycling conditions. Holland doesn’t have the inconsiderate drivers that many cycling British celebs seem to continually film and share on social media. “The biggest hills we have are our bridges and dikes, so there’s no need to worry,” Marc told me. “In Holland bicycles have their own lanes reserved for them. All the people who drive cars know what it is like to cycle so they will be cautious. The cyclist has priority. In general it’s very safe.”
The countryside surrounding Gouda is protected. That means it is popular for people who want to get close to nature or pedal out for a picnic by a polder. “This is called The Green Heart of Holland,” explained Marc. “It’s a beautiful nature area that you can easily explore by bike or hiking. Some people just want to get on a bike and get into nature. They will always be happy cycling along the water and seeing the birds.”
Marc takes some cycle tours to taste cheese at small farms and he also offers a trip to a town known for its witch trials – Oudewater, a 40-minute cycle ride from Gouda. “Women who were suspected of being witches were weighed there,” said Marc. “If their weight was considered too low, then they would be punished. Today the museum is the former witch weighing house, where you can still be weighed.” Marc assured me that all of his tour parties have been allowed to leave, however they tipped the scales.
He’ll also put together custom itineraries and his tours operate year round – you can see the schedule at Green-Cow.nl. Marc recommends visiting before Christmas for Gouda’s Candlelight Festival. “In the week before Christmas, the tree is put up in the square and it is lit by 10,000 bulbs. All of the houses in the Market Square put candles in front of their windows.”
Heleen told me that it’s a magical event. They turn off the streetlights to add to the ambience and up to 20,000 people fill the square. The event marks the former Gouda candlemaking industry. That’s ended, along with clay pipe making. There’s still a ceramics sector, though. You can learn more inside the city’s museum.
The huge, impressive, cobbled Market Square, with pavement cafes and bars around two sides, is Gouda’s focal point. And standing in the middle of it is the town hall. The Gothic sandstone building is picture-perfect, with its pinnacles of stonework at the front and red-and-white shuttered windows on the sides. It was built in 1450, unusually in the middle of the large square, far away from the other buildings. That’s because the older hall burned down when a blaze spread through town.
Every thirty minutes a pretty carillon plays. If you stare up at the walls you’ll see little figures come out from under the bells as they slowly re-enact the granting of city rights in the 13th century. This town hall is so distinctive the Japanese have replicated it. There’s a copy in Nagasaki!
But there’s an even more impressive building looming over the square. TV presenter Renata had suggested that I should visit Gouda’s St John’s Church. “Every person who visits Gouda from abroad and sees that church knows that there is something special going on,” she added.
Maurits Tompot knows every inch of the church – he’s the custodian. He was finishing up a guided tour for a party of forty American cyclists when I walked into the vast church to meet him. At 123 metres long, the 16th century church is the longest in the Netherlands.
“The soil in this part of Holland is very soft and everything sinks away. Everything has to be built with piles. This church was built without them so it’s floating – like Noah’s Ark,” joked Maurits. “In Britain you would call this past the church the nave. We call it ‘the ship’. It is a ship, upside down!” The church has recently added a solid metal floor to try and address its sinking. Maurits pointed to the ceiling. “It’s wood, not stone, in an attempt to reduce weight.”
It’s the windows that will impress you the most. 61 of the church’s 72 stained glass windows were installed in the 16th century and many of them portray Biblical stories. They are like comic strips with speech bubbles and text emerging from the mouths of figures, which also depict key moments in Dutch history. That’s why UNESCO has placed them on its Heritage List. “There’s 2000m² of glass, half of it was made in the Roman Catholic period,” said Maurits. “Then we had the Reformation. The other windows, on the west side, were made after the Reformation on the Protestant side.”
After Amsterdam took away Gouda’s shipping trade, the city became very poor. We can be grateful for that today. As Gouda became impoverished, locals couldn’t afford to follow the trend for plain glass windows. “It was fashionable to have pale glass in churches. Many churches took out their stained-glass windows and replaced them. But not in Gouda. We were too poor,” said Maurits.
Locals are proud that the 15th century thinker Erasmus grew up in Gouda. He translated the New Testament into Latin to make it more accessible. That meant more people could read it and it’s claimed that his work played a major role in driving the Reformation He also wrote books that used humour to question the authority of the Pope. They were best sellers and he would have been a household name these days. There’s a window dedicated to him.
Away from St John’s there are some quaint streets and one alleyway in particular caught my attention because it was so constricted. It wouldn’t have been possible to walk alongside your bicycle down the narrow gap between terraced houses on Looierspoort. Marc told me that it is a very old street. “It used to be filled with houses for workers. It’s so narrow I always wonder how people would be able to move there because you could not even get your couch through that little alley.” You wouldn’t be able to eat many stroopwafels if you lived there either, I offered. “Well, you could get in but you couldn’t get out,” Marc laughed.
Chantal from Green Cow Bike Tours took me to another unusual site. We headed to a small residential street, Naaierstraat, in the town centre. On the front of one of the narrow three-storey town houses you’ll see a colourful frieze depicting craftsmen wearing Elizabethan period dress. “It shows the patron saints of the Masons,” she told me. “It was created in 1530.” There was a space in between the figures with the outline of a woman. It’s thought that the frieze once contained an image of the Madonna. “It even has its own Wikipedia page because it is a national monument,” Chantal explained.
There are lots of historic buildings in this city. Gouda has 350 national monuments but the city has repurposed some former factories into stylish recreational spaces. The Light Factory is a former power station. It’s now a big restaurant, which you reach by climbing a steep metal staircase that opens out into an airy, hipster-style dining room. Its massive windows allow lots of light in and there are great views out over the two canals, which intersect nearby. The food was fine but the service was really odd. The waitress brought me a drink that I hadn’t ordered and asked me whether I wanted to buy it anyway. And clearly she thought I had eaten enough – she brought me the bill without offering desert!
Another unusual space, the Chocolate Factory, is a very airy, trendy library and arts centre with a stylish café offering contemporary modern food. It’s like something from TV’s Grand Designs. I loved it. I had a superb goats cheese salad – without stroopwafels. It’s worth visiting.
Gerard kindly accommodated me in his 12-room guesthouse, De Utrechtsche Dom, which was originally a coaching inn. It is well situated in the town centre and a 10 minute walk from the railway station. Its name can cause confusion, as you’d think it was in nearby Utrecht. Gerard explained that 350 years ago, the entrance to the building was behind the old town gate in the direction of Utrecht, from which it takes its name. You can visit HotelGouda.nl for more information.
Gouda is a great city in its own right and you’d find plenty to do if you were here for a week. Holland is well connected with public transport. Their efficient trains run between major cities regularly and operate late into the night. I think that Gouda’s central location makes it a great base for exploring the Netherlands. “Within one hour you are in central Amsterdam, central Rotterdam, Utrecht or The Hague,” Gerard explained. “We get a lot of people who stay here for a week or two and do day trips. They return here for their dinner because it’s cheaper than Amsterdam!”
This area of the Netherlands is around an hour’s flight from many UK airports. Gouda is 15 minutes by train from Rotterdam, a city with an airport serviced by low cost airlines, and around one hour by train from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
For more information about the city, visit the excellent city tourist board website at WelcomeToGouda.com.