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A nation of giant cheese lovers
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The Netherlands: A nation of tall cheese eaters

Earlier this year, a museum in Amsterdam was the scene of a terrible crime. Curators were horrified to discover that one of their most prized exhibits - a small shiny object glittering with 220 diamonds - was missing. The world's most expensive cheese slicer was gone.

A regular cheese slicer

In some countries, a theft from the national cheese museum might sound like the plot for a cartoon. In the Netherlands, however, cheese is a serious business. For the Dutch, dairy products are not only staple foods but national symbols, and the bedrock of a major export industry.

The Netherlands' love of all things dairy is largely a consequence of its unique geography. Over the past few centuries, the Dutch embarked on an extraordinary project to rebuild their country, much of which laid under water. Thousands of canals were dug, and bogs were drained.

An aerial photograph of the canals of Amsterdam

Silty reclaimed soil proved perfect for growing rich, moist grass, and that grass in turn made perfect food for cows. Thousands of the creatures soon were grazing happily on reclaimed land. The country's most popular breed - the black and white Friesian - became world famous.

A Friesian cow

Today, the country's affection for all things bovine continues. The Netherlands now has more than 1.6 million dairy cows - roughly as many as Belgium, Denmark and Sweden combined – producing more than 12 million tonnes of milk each year and 800 million tonnes of cheese. Nearly S$12 billion of dairy products are exported annually, to countries as far away as China, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.

A variety of cheeses for sale in Amsterdam

To the Dutch, milk and cheese are staples, as essential as rice is to the Chinese shopper. Markets throughout the Netherlands sell an astonishing range of different sizes, ages and flavours, from Maasdammer with its Swiss-style holes, to wagon wheel-sized Komijnekaas speckled with cumin seeds to the famous spherical Edams, coated in wax to help retain moisture and stacked in markets like cannonballs.

Cheese factory in the Netherlands

One might think that an all-dairy diet would bad for waistlines, but in fact the Dutch have grown mostly in the opposite direction. In 150-odd years of scoffing milk and cheese, the Dutch have gone from being among the shortest people in Europe to being the tallest in the world. These days, the average Dutchman is more than 1m 83cm and the average Dutch woman about 1m 70cm.

Cheese maidens

Scientists continue to debate the causes of this growth spurt. One important clue is that the fact that growing tall appears to be contagious: immigrants who move to the Netherlands usually end up taller than people who remain in their home countries. So it's perfectly possible that the Dutch dairy addiction played a major role in turning one of the world's flattest places into a land of giants.

Rounds of Gouda, a Dutch yellow cheese made from cow's milk

The Cheese Museum's diamond slicer sadly has never been found. In desperation, the museum's director has offered a reward which he hopes will attract the interest of his countrymen. Anyone who finds it can claim the world's largest cheese fondue.

Click here to read another article about the cheese that can’t be moved!

(All images - credit: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence)

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