Gouda is a Dutch yellow cheese made from cow’s milk. It is named after the city of Gouda in the Netherlands. One of the most popular cheeses worldwide, the name is used today as a general term for a variety of similar cheese produced in the traditional Dutch manner, as well as the Dutch original.
The first mention of Gouda cheese dates from 1184, making it one of the oldest recorded cheeses in the world still made today.
The cheese is named after the Dutch city of Gouda, not because it is produced in or near the city, but because it has historically been traded there. In the Middle Ages, Dutch cities could obtain certain feudal rights which gave them primacy or a total monopoly on certain goods. Within the County of Holland, Gouda acquired market rights on cheese, the sole right to have a market in which the county’s farmers could sell their cheese. All the cheeses would be taken to the market square in Gouda to be sold.
Teams consisting of the guild of cheese-porters, identified by differently coloured straw hats, carried the farmers’ cheeses on barrows, which typically weighed about 160 kg. Buyers then sampled the cheeses and negotiated a price using a ritual system called handjeklap in which buyers and sellers clap each others hands and shout prices. Once a price was agreed, the porters would carry the cheese to the weighing house and complete the sale. To this day, farmers from the surrounding region gather in Gouda every Thursday morning between 10 am and 12:30 pm from June until August to have their cheeses weighed, tasted, and priced. Today, most Dutch Gouda is produced industrially. However, some 300 Dutch farmers still produce boerenkaas (“farmers cheese”) which is a protected form of Gouda made in the traditional manner, using unpasteurized milk. Cheese-making traditionally was a woman’s task in Dutch culture, with farmers’ wives passing their cheese-making skills on to their daughters.
Various sources suggest that the term “Gouda” refers more to a general style of cheese making rather than to a specific kind of cheese, pointing to the fact that the taste varies greatly based on age. The seven different categories of Gouda are based on age. Young (and factory-produced) Gouda has been described as having a flavour that is “lightly fudge with nuts, but very, very mild”, while the same source describes a more mature farmhouse Gouda as having a “lovely fruity tang” with a “sweet finish”, that may take on “an almost butterscotch flavour” if aged over 2 years.
After cultured milk is curdled, some of the whey is then drained and water is added. This is called “washing the curd”, and creates a sweeter cheese, as the washing removes some of the lactose, resulting in a reduction of lactic acid produced. About 10% of the mixture is curds, which are pressed into circular molds for several hours. These molds are the essential reason behind its traditional, characteristic shape. The cheese is then soaked in a brine solution, which gives the cheese and its rind a distinctive taste.
The cheese is dried for a few days before being coated with a yellow coating to prevent it from drying out, then it is aged, during which process the cheese changes from semi-hard to hard. Dutch cheese-makers generally use six gradations to classify the cheese:
- Young cheese (4 weeks)
- Young matured (8–10 weeks)
- Matured (16–18 weeks)
- Extra matured (7–8 months)
- Old cheese (10–12 months)
- Very old cheese (12 months and more)
As it ages, it develops a caramel sweetness and has a slight crunchiness from cheese crystals, especially in older cheeses.
Young Gouda cheese is typically used on sandwiches, either cold or melted.
In the Netherlands, cubes of Gouda are often eaten as a snack served with Dutch mustard. Older varieties are sometimes topped with sugar or apple syrup. Cubes of old and very old Gouda are eaten alongside strong pale beers, such as Tripel, Dubbel, or Trappist, or with port wine.
The term “Gouda” is not restricted to cheese of Dutch origin. However, “Boerenkaas”, “Noord-Hollandse Gouda”, and “Gouda Holland” are registered in the EU as having Protected Geographical Indication status. These cheeses can only be made in the Netherlands and can only use milk produced by Dutch cows.