September 10 – 14, 2018

When I set out on this trip I had a faint hope that I could reconnect with a distant childhood memory: the delicious taste of green cheese.

On my first night in Fryslân the quest for green cheese suddenly jumped several steps up the priority queue, when I stumbled across an important clue.

I was staying with a cyclist on a small village northwest of Leeuwarden. I asked him, “Is your mother tongue Nederlands or Frysk?”

With no hesitation he answered “Neither. It was Bildts.”

And then he explained the origin of that particular dialect, by way of 500 years of history and geography.

Up until 500 years ago, he said, there was a body of water known as the Middlesea bisecting present-day Fryslân a bit west of Leeuwarden (or Ljouwert in Frysk.) A decision was made to build a dike to turn the Middlesea into polders. For this purpose a group of workers from far to the south were brought in. They built the dike (which was termed the Oudebildtdijk), settled the rich farmlands that resulted, and over time their deep-south version of Dutch blended with Frysk to form the dialect now known as Bildts.

Map showing dates of land reclamation from the former Middlesea. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fascinating – but what does this have to do with green cheese?

My host, you see, had put together a very helpful little book on local history and language. Included in the book was this graphic:

“Butter, Bread, and Green Cheese, who cannot say this is no true Fries!”

Aha! So there was indeed a “green cheese” in the Netherlands, and specifically in Fryslân.

Here a flashback is in order. When I grew up in Prinsburg, Minnesota, in the last half of the last millennium, the town’s only grocery store was called Strootman’s Store. I recall that my parents on at least one occasion bought an imported delicacy, green cheese, and I recall that it was very fine indeed. (A skeptic might say I only recall this because of a fanciful connection with moon, and besides, it is highly doubtful that a very picky eater like this author in his childhood would have dared to taste green cheese, if in fact it existed. I categorically reject that interpretation, because it would spoil this story.)

In recent years I asked in a number of specialty cheese shops, but none of them was aware of a “green cheese”. But now, armed with crucial historical-linguistic evidence, I felt I was close to an answer.

The next two days in Leeuwarden, I walked several kilometres to the Fryslân capital city’s various cheese stores. Alas, none of them had green cheese for sale, but one of them did confirm its existence.

Two days later, however, I was in Groningen with my brother Ronn, and it happened to be market day. The second cheese merchant I approached had true Griene Tsiis – a creamy farmers’ cheese flavoured with parsley and caraway – and it was delicious. Furthermore, my brother Ronn said that the taste was strangely familiar, which I took to be rock-solid evidence that this was indeed the fabled green cheese of my childhood.

I may or may not be an “oprjochte Fries”, but the big piece of Griene Tsiis I bought fueled me for the next several days.

Top photo: A map of the regional cycling network, typical of the signs you can find all over the Netherlands. Usually located at each “Knooppunt” or connection point, these maps allow you to go on rambling rides through the countryside without have to carry a map or use a GPS. The regional routes complement national cycling routes and local cycling routes.