Step aside Parma, behold the cheese king of the north

When Swedish writer Olaus Magnus was exiled in Italy in the 1500s, he warned the regions of Parma and Piancenza to watch out lest their cheesemaking skills be surpassed by his hard-working countrymen back home. While the Swedish cheesemaking culture may have suffered some setbacks in the last 500 years, the number of artisanal cheese makers in Sweden is on the rise and their cheeses will leave you swooning. Many of these idyllic farms also make perfect travel destinations – with opportunities to stay in their farmhouses, take a tour, and sample their delicacies.

During the 1930s, there were roughly 1600 small dairies in Sweden and many of them produced their own local cheeses. But after a series of laws were passed regarding pasteurization and wartime rationing, that number dropped to a mere 20 after WWII. To survive, dairy farms banded together in cooperatives and these are still the country’s dominant producers today.

The co-ops consolidated the vast number of cheeses down to an assortment of mild semi-hard cheeses like Prästost, Herrgårdsost, Hushållsost, Grevé. However, in the last twenty years the number of independent cheese-making dairies has grown to almost 160 – bringing with it the arrival of new cheeses and the resurrection of forgotten recipes and techniques.

 

Polar cheese from mountain cows

High up in Lapland a farm cooperative called Polcirkeln Gårdsprodukter uses the milk from native fjäll cattle, an ancient breed that has roamed the hills of Sweden as far back as the Viking Age. Because fjäll cattle don’t produce as much as other breeds they nearly became extinct in the 1970s and are still on the endangered list. But because their milk is fatty and rich in proteins like casein, it is ideal for cheese.

Farm manager Eva-Lena Skalstad calls the dairy “the last outpost of agriculture.” Formed by a group of locals interested in preserving the breed, the art of cheese making and their open landscape, this farm cooperative has only nine cows and only one employee. Anyone can become a member and even adopt a cow (some cows have multiple adoptive parents).

Their signature cheese, Skabram, is an aged hard cheese with delicate herbal notes from the cows’ varied diet and it’s made with unpasteurized milk according to an old Dutch recipe. The dairy also produces coffee cheese (kaffeost), a unique regional cheese that’s baked until the caramelizing sugars turn it golden brown. To eat it, you drop it into a cup of coffee and take it out with a spoon. To quote one fan, “it makes espresso taste like tiramisu.”

Hungry to get a taste of fjäll cow cheese? You can visit Skabram, stay in one of their cabins, and see the midnight sun in the summer or the northern lights in winter while you fish and hike or dogsled and dip cheese in your coffee.

Smells like summer, tastes like meringues

For several years Stockholm’s Nordiksa Museet has hosted a cheese festival in February, and in 20016 the People’s Choice Award went to Gårdsost from Svedjan Ost. At Sweden’s annual artisan food competition, where the same cheese has won gold or silver for three consecutive years, the jury called it “a tribute to Swedish cheese tradition” that “smells like summer and tastes like meringues.” Aged, crystal-flecked, with a smooth, beautiful texture, it has hints of pear, fig, herbs and caramel and has quickly become a staple at the country’s top restaurants, like at Mathias Dahlgren’s, where it is likely to make an appearance at the chef’s table.

At Svedjan Pär och Johanna Hellström use raw rather than pasteurized cow’s milk, bacterial culture, rennet and sea salt. Not to mention the various molds in their storeroom which, according to the Hellströms, form “nature’s own shell to protect the cheese and contribute to flavor formation during maturation.”

As if making one of Sweden’s best new cheeses isn’t enough, Pär and Johanna are also culture lovers of another sort. Each summer they cooperate with a local cultural club and host theater, music, dance and art exhibits in the adjoining hay barn.

 

Cheese that’s worth its weight in gold

Just down the road from Svedjan Ost you’ll find Burträsk, where Västerbotten, the king of Swedish cheeses is made, and just south of this royal domain is the village of Bjurholm, home to the one of the most expensive cheeses on earth. At Algens Hus (the Moose House), the Johansson family takes milk from a small herd of tame moose and turns it into the world’s only moose milk cheese.

Because the slightest noise will upset the moose and put an end to the milking, milking can only take place in total silence – and for only about an hour to two hours. The yield is at best a few liters, which the Johanssons then freeze until they have enough milk to proceed with the cheese-making, three times per year. They then make two kinds of blue cheese, a camembert-type cheese and a feta.

Made famous a few years ago when Sherlock Holmes used it as payment for a key card on the U.S. TV-series, Elementary, it is rumored that the cheese goes for upwards of $400 a pound. If you’re going to go all-in, why not pay to eat the cheese on the farm? The Moose House offers a slide show, museum and the chance to get cozy with the herd. To book a tour call 0932- 500 00.

Photo: Tina Stafrén

No need to be sheepish

Smack-dab in the middle of Sweden, on a farm that’s been in the same family since the 14th century, Kristina and Robert Åkermo have consistently been making some of Sweden’s most best-tasting cheeses for more than ten years. At Oviken they use milk from their own sheep and cow’s milk from a neighboring dairy where Kristina is the house veterinarian. The flavor, they say, starts with rich soil that generates healthy pastures from which the animals eat – and then convert into milk that has its own unique micro-flora.

Another chef favorite, Oviken was one of Fäviken’s oldest suppliers, and Magna, a salty, firm blue cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, has won three awards at Sweden’s annual artisanal food competition, and a gold medal at the 2013 World Cheese Awards. With its distinct nuttiness and a long aftertaste, one reviewer pondered whether another Oviken cheese, Himmelsraften Extra, might have eclipsed Västerbotten as Sweden’s best hard cheese.

Next time you find yourself traveling through Jämtland, be sure to stop by their farm store and café. Or visit one of the many restaurants in Sweden where Oviken cheese is served.

 

The flavor of limestone

Martin Ragnar, who has spent years researching and writing books on the dairies and cheeses of Gotland, says the oldest written record of cheese on Gotland dates back to the mid-1400s, but that it is not unlikely that the monks were making cheese at the abbey in Roma, which was established in the mid 1200s.

Today, on the outskirts of Visby, Stafva Gårdsmejeri has renewed the tradition of cheese making on Gotland. Their high-end cheese, Stafva GrottBlå, is made in an extremely limited edition and available only during the summer and at Christmas. It is inoculated with the same kind of mold as Roquefort cheese and then stored for six weeks in the island’s famous Lummelunda Caves, during which time it is hand-turned numerous times.

As you move south through Sweden the flavors of the cheeses change with the terroir and according to Ragnar, because “the Gotland soil is very rich in limestone, the milk is rich in calcium, which means that coagulation typically goes 1.5 times faster here than in other regions.” And of course, this affects the flavor of the cheese. In fact, if the taste of Stafva GrottBlå reminds you of Roquefort, it’s not just the mold that’s coming through -Roquefort is produced from the milk of ewes that feed on a limestone plateau. The shop at Stafva is open daily. They also offer farm tours and cheese tastings (0498-310 05).

A household name and the flavors of home

In Västra Götaland there is a deep and old tradition of hard cheese, one of which was Hushållsost. In the old days Hushållsost was born out of the cheese that curdled out of the summer’s surplus milk on almost all farms. Gäsene Mejeri, one of the cooperatives that formed in the 1930s, is famous for its “cheese machine,” which automated production, and for being the only company that makes Hushållsost today using Swedish milk. At Gäsene’s cheese shop last year roughly 23,000 people paid a visit and got their fill of good cheese. To book your cheese tasting call 0513-250 81.

Just up the road from Gäsene is Almnäs Bruk, home to the oldest registered cheese in Sweden, “Wrångebäck Sweden,” which was registered in 1889. The farm at Almnäs was mentioned in a letter dated 1225, and the dairy has been producing cheese here since the 1830s, except between 1961 and 2008. After this break Thomas Berglund, the family’s prodigal son, returned home and decided to make cheese again. He sought out the help of an 82-year-old former dairyman to recreate the recipe and took wooden planks from the old dairy to use in the new storage facility so the original bacterial cultures that remained in the planks would imbue the rounds of Wrångebäck with flavor. The dairy also makes a tangy, mushroomy, medieval-style cheese that’s aged in baskets called Anno 1225 – it won a gold medal at England’s World Cheese Awards in 2012.

 

Not just about the bucks

Goat cheese has long been popular throughout the country, but especially in Västernorrland and Jämtland. In the 1970s Ramsele Getgård (a man whose last name translates literally to “Goatfarm”) decided to streamline goat cheese production to eliminate discrepancies in quality. The result was Vit Caprin, a cheese made from milk that is first pasteurized and then inoculated with a white Camembert mold.

Today Annika & Kjell-Ewe Schrewelius of Hagelstad Gårdsmejeri are making award-winning goat cheese much further south, on the island of Öland. While they make a unpasteurized version of Vit Caprin called S:t Olof, it is their Öländsk Spiteost, a sweet but rambunctious ripened cheese with ash and natural molds that has people queuing up for more.

When she was interviewed by the radio station P4, Annika Schrewelius told the reporter that although she makes more money with more sophisticated cheeses, it’s not about the bucks. “The money is only better if you don’t consider the time,” she said. “But what you can’t compare is the satisfaction, and that has increased enormously because I know I have a good product.”