The original Edam cheese, a small round cheese approximately 1.7 kilos in weight, came from the little town of Edam in the province of North Holland in the Netherlands. In the 14th century Edam became an important export harbour. Most of the cheese made in Edam was sold for export. And this is probably why the cheese shipped from the harbour came to be known as Edam. The cheeses were also referred to as ‘cleyne casekens’ (little cheeses) or ‘klootkaasjes’ (little round cheeses).
North Holland has always been a waterlogged province. It was inhabited by prehistoric farmers as far back as 1600 BC. Very few crops would grow in the wet clay soil. So the inhabitants had to resort to some other form of livelihood and concentrated primarily on livestock. They began reclaiming and impoldering the land in around 1600.
Cheese and butter
In the 17th century the Netherlands was already famous for its cheese, especially in Europe. Germany, England and France in particular were all large export markets. The small round Edam cheeses were ideal fare for the sailors to take with them (they were practical and nutritious). And they weren’t only used as provisions, for it turned out they could also be exchanged for spices and other commodities.
Transport by small boats
Cheese was sold at various regional markets. Indeed, a number of the markets in North Holland, such as those in Amsterdam, Purmerend, Enkhuizen, Alkmaar, Hoorn and Edam, were well known for their cheese trade. With the abundance of waterways, the cheeses were transported to market in small boats because the roads were sometimes impassable.
Every day the farmer’s wife made the cheese on the farm, using the full milk gathered in the morning and the skimmed milk gathered in the evening. As the size of the farmers’ herds increased so did the milk. Dairymaids helped the farmer’s wife to make the cheese, but staff was in short supply because many of the young people had moved to Amsterdam in the hope of being able to earn a better wage. Eventually a number of farms joined forces in order to be able to make the cheese more efficiently and more cost-effectively.
Gradually more and more of these small companies started to work together in what were known as ‘dagfabriekjes’ or ‘small day factories’, which were essentially nothing more than a collective dairy. From 1886 onwards these small day factories also started to work together on a co-operative basis and the dairies began to increase in size – a process that continues to this day.
There are still cheese markets in Edam and Alkmaar to this day, but now they are only held in the summer for the tourists. Nevertheless, these cheese markets show how cheese was sold up until the fifties.
Quality is very important
The type of cheese that came to be known as Edam is not only made in North Holland, it is also made in Friesland. That fact that quality has always been considered to be very important in North Holland is evident from an early report drawn up by the Committee for Agriculture in Amstelland, which was published back in 1810. The report stipulated that the Edam cheeses made in North Holland had to be ‘hard on the inside and round in shape’.
Edam is a 40+ cheese, which means that the milk solids in the cheese contain 40% fat. In the case of Edam cheese this works out as an absolute fat content of 25% (in other words, there are 25 grams of fat per 100 grams of product).