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Discovering Cheese and Tradition in the Swedish North


Driving along Sweden’s wildflower-studded E4 highway towards the city of Skellefteå, I’m in awe of how the landscape is just so, well, SwedishThere is water in every direction: calm, sprawling lakes are flanked by picturesque red cabins and surrounded by birch trees. The sky is endless and blue, the sun shining: It’s just what the Swedes dream of while enduring their long, dark winters. There’s a sense of quiet adventurethis is a place to slow down and reconnect with nature, to experience a different way of lifeor, in my case, discover Sweden’s finest cheeses.  

I’m joined by my personal Swede and husband, Johan. We’ve driven north from Stockholm, taking our time winding up the country’s eastern coastline. We’ve made overnight stops in the lovely cities of Falun and Sundsvallbut it’s finally passing the road sign welcoming us to Västerbotten county that I find most thrilling. 

To me, this journey is akin to a pilgrimage: For years I have been romanticizing the region’s most popular cheese: Västerbottensost. A staple of Swedish life, particularly around holidays and for kräftskiva (popular late-summer crayfish parties where the small crustaceans are baked into cheese pies), I was hooked upon tasting my first crumbling, crystalline slice in 2012and I’ve been shuttling wedges across borders ever since.  

Antique milk jugs at Svedjan Ost dairy

We’re in Västerbottens län, the secondmost northern county in Sweden and the southern entry point of the Lapland, Sweden’s slice of the Arctic Circle. This county spans the width of the country, with Norway to the west and the Gulf of Bothnia to the east. Mown Västerbotten experience begins in the northeastern city of Skellefteå (pronounced “shell-eff-tee-oh”), which is largely defined by its all-encompassing proximity to water. There are hundreds of nearby lakes, many miles of coastline, and five riversone of whichthe Skellefteflows lazily through the city(It’s lovely to cycle along, particularly when pedaling towards local craft beer.) The sun never quite sets during the summer, so folks stay out late to enjoy the soft light, pleasant temperatures, and remarkable food scene.  

From coffee at midnight to reindeer tartarechanterelle toast to cloudberry jam, the northern Swedes are creative with their eats. An emphasis on sustainability and preservation logical for those long wintersleads to innovative dishes with ingredients plucked straight from Nordic forestsVästerbotten county’s two largest cities, Skellefteå and Umeå, are full of the types of chic cafés and creative eateries you’d expect in cosmopolitan Stockholm. Fusion cuisine is popular herewith skilled chefs pairing Nordic ingredients with flavors inspired by Japan, Thailand, and the United States. There are outstanding burgers to be had, gourmet licorice to try, and a rapidly growing craft beer scenebut I’m here for the cheese. 

Burträsk Mejeri dairy, where Västerbottensost cheese is made

History and Mystery  

My pursuit begins on a Saturday morning. The destination is Burträsk, a village 40 minutes south of Skellefteå. The dairy Burträsk Mejeriwhere Västerbottensost cheese is made, is not open to guests, but a visitor’s center right next door recounts the elusive origins of its iconic cheese. It all started in 1872 with a dairymaid by the name of Ulrika Eleonora Lindström. She rose to head of cheese production within just three years of beginning farm workpraised for her attention to detail and meticulous record-keeping.  

One fateful day, Ulrika Eleonora became distracted (by a lover, some say), and failed to keep an eye on the vat as the milk was curdling. While the resulting wheel was presumed a failure, later sampling proved otherwise. So the skilled dairymaid adjusted her recipe to continue creating the same fruity, salty, aromatic, and marvelously dewy cheese the Swedes still enjoy today.  

As one of Sweden’s most beloved cheeses, demand for Västerbottensost regularly exceeds supply. To keep up, attempts have been made to produce the cheese outside of Burträskbut it’s never worked; outside of this dairy, the cheese simply does not develop its unique characterWhile no one agrees on the precise reasonseveral myths have emerged. The chalky, lime-rich Burträsk soilwhich may have resulted from a meteorite impact millions of years ago—is often creditedOthers argue that the magic is in seasonal lighting conditions, as spending half the year shrouded in darkness only to be bathed in round-the-clock summer light surely impacts vegetation growthOr could it be the northern cows themselves, munching on this lively grass springing forth from calcareous soil, frolicking in the midnight sun with more passion and zest for life than their southern sistren? Maybe it’s the spirit of Ulrika Eleonora, watching over the curds of each batch. 

The pastures of Svedjan Ost overlook Lake Storkägetrask

More likelyit’s the flora at Burträsk dairy. While cheese production was moved to a new building in the 1930smost of the original fixtures were preservedalong with the 19th-century presses and linen cloths. Even the brine itself was carried over, bucket by sloshing bucketThe Burträsk dairy is quite literally its own ecosystem of historic, thriving bacteria. Combining this impossible-to-replicate flora with the original (and still highly secretive) recipe, produced in the same hands-onattentive manner since 1872, it seems to me that making Västerbottensost anywhere else would bimpossible indeed. 

“We’ve actually sold 66 percent more cheese [in the shop] this summer than all of last year,” says Mårten Warg, a visitor’s center attendant. “There’s so much demand we haven’t even been able to keep it in stores.” And as with most good things, Västerbottensost requires waiting. Each 40-pound wheel is aged for a minimum of 14 months on shelves made from local spruceThey’re turned each day for the first three weeks before taking a paraffin bath and retiring to the maturation room. An extra-aged versionproduced in limited supplyrests there for at least 24 months. 

After purchasing a responsible quantity for myself, I ask Warg what he thinks of all the hype over a cheese that has remained largely unchanged since the late 1800sHis answer is simple: In my personal opinion, it’s the best cheese in the world.  

Thomas Rudin, cheesemaker at Burträsk

History and Mystery  

My pursuit begins on a Saturday morning. The destination is Burträsk, a village 40 minutes south of Skellefteå. The dairy Burträsk Mejeriwhere Västerbottensost cheese is made, is not open to guests, but a visitor’s center right next door recounts the elusive origins of its iconic cheese. It all started in 1872 with a dairymaid by the name of Ulrika Eleonora Lindström. She rose to head of cheese production within just three years of beginning farm workpraised for her attention to detail and meticulous record-keeping.  

One fateful day, Ulrika Eleonora became distracted (by a lover, some say), and failed to keep an eye on the vat as the milk was curdling. While the resulting wheel was presumed a failure, later sampling proved otherwise. So the skilled dairymaid adjusted her recipe to continue creating the same fruity, salty, aromatic, and marvelously dewy cheese the Swedes still enjoy today.  

As one of Sweden’s most beloved cheeses, demand for Västerbottensost regularly exceeds supply. To keep up, attempts have been made to produce the cheese outside of Burträskbut it’s never worked; outside of this dairy, the cheese simply does not develop its unique characterWhile no one agrees on the precise reasonseveral myths have emerged. The chalky, lime-rich Burträsk soilwhich may have resulted from a meteorite impact millions of years ago—is often creditedOthers argue that the magic is in seasonal lighting conditions, as spending half the year shrouded in darkness only to be bathed in round-the-clock summer light surely impacts vegetation growthOr could it be the northern cows themselves, munching on this lively grass springing forth from calcareous soil, frolicking in the midnight sun with more passion and zest for life than their southern sistren? Maybe it’s the spirit of Ulrika Eleonora, watching over the curds of each batch. 

More likelyit’s the flora at Burträsk dairy. While cheese production was moved to a new building in the 1930smost of the original fixtures were preservedalong with the 19th-century presses and linen cloths. Even the brine itself was carried over, bucket by sloshing bucketThe Burträsk dairy is quite literally its own ecosystem of historic, thriving bacteria. Combining this impossible-to-replicate flora with the original (and still highly secretive) recipe, produced in the same hands-onattentive manner since 1872, it seems to me that making Västerbottensost anywhere else would bimpossible indeed. 

“We’ve actually sold 66 percent more cheese [in the shop] this summer than all of last year,” says Mårten Warg, a visitor’s center attendant. “There’s so much demand we haven’t even been able to keep it in stores.” And as with most good things, Västerbottensost requires waiting. Each 40-pound wheel is aged for a minimum of 14 months on shelves made from local spruceThey’re turned each day for the first three weeks before taking a paraffin bath and retiring to the maturation room. An extra-aged versionproduced in limited supplyrests there for at least 24 months. 

After purchasing a responsible quantity for myself, I ask Warg what he thinks of all the hype over a cheese that has remained largely unchanged since the late 1800sHis answer is simple: In my personal opinion, it’s the best cheese in the world.  

A New Chapter 

One hour north of Burträsk, in the tiny locality of Södra Svedjan (population: 20), is a picture-perfect small farm that looks as spectacular in person as it does on Instagram. The sloping green hillsides are peppered with lively cows flicking their tails against shiny coats as they amble down to crisp, blue lake. Red farmhouses, rustic and cozy with their white trim and tiny porches, are scattered throughout the property. This is Svedjan Ost, a dairy run by husband-wife duo Pär and Johanna Hellström. Their specialty is Svedjan Gårdsost, one of Sweden’s most decorated cheeses. 

Johanna and Pär Hellström of Svedjan Ost

It’s a warm Sunday when Johan and I arrive, and we’re just in time for an afternoon of activitytable of cinnamon buns, coffee, and small sandwiches is being prepared for fikathe Swedish tradition of taking a break and a bite with colleagues, while local artists arrange crafts for display inside a repurposed barn. Friends, family, and visitors are gathering for one of the many events Johanna and Pär host throughout the year to support arts and culture. I keep my eyes peeled for Johanna, who I’ve been emailing; when I locate her, busy with a thermos of coffee and last-minute directives for her baker-extraordinaire son Alfred, she hugs me as though we’re old friends. Her warmth and hospitality are infectious, her sense of community inspiring. “We have all this space,” she says, gesturing with an open arm after I remark on the dozens of smiling facesWe may as well use it to let people come together.”  

The Svedjan Ost story began in 2009 when Johanna and Pär felt their former farming life was due for a change. An interest in artisan foods led them on a journey of discovery; while visiting cheesemakers in southern France, they saw the lifestyle they wanted to lead“Cheese is a cool product,” Pär saysas we enjoy an open-air dinner of roast lamb later that evening. “Swedish milk producers have been decreasing since the 1950sand there are fewer people making cheese. We like history, we like tradition, we wanted to get into cheesemaking to help refresh the profession.” The Hellströms knew it would take time to develop their craft, and their focus has always been on the well-being of the animals and land they care for, fully aware of how environment connects to what’s on our plates. 

Homestead Hospitality 

The next morning begins early, when Johan and I wake up in a circa-1830 cabin. “The first house in our village,” Johanna had told us the night before as we traipsed through a cow pasture to reach our accommodations. The fire we’ve lit to keep the mosquitos at bay has long since burned out, and the sun is already stretching its rays across the lake as we make our way to the main house for coffee before continuing to the dairy 

As we suit up in hairnets and aprons, the first order of business is to slice open a month-old wheel of Svedjan Blå blue cheese for inspection. I want to see the eye pattern,” Pär explains, referring to the distribution of blue mold. With a swift motion of slicing wire he splits the cheese, revealing a creamy white center with what looksto melike lovely patterns of blue moldPär nods in approval, then we taste“This is not so bitter, it’s mild in a good way,” he says, slicing off a wedge to enjoy at lunch.  

Pär and Johanna examine a wheel of Gärdsost

We shuffle over to the vat where nearly 700 liters of morning milk are being heated to 93.2°F to create a new batch of blue cheese. Pär preps the cultures, working so methodically I can’t help but comment on his efficiency. “My dream is to have routines,” he says. “When you have routines you have 50 percent of the work taken care of.” I can’t argue with his logicso I just watch the artist at work. “Tradition is very important, but to be too strict is kind of boring, Pär explains. As a modern cheesemaker, hes on a constant quest to find the best flavors and texturesusing all the tools that are available to him. But to have your starting point in tradition,” he adds, “gives meaning and pleasure.” 

After the rennet has done its part and Pär is giving the cut curds a stir, he muses aloud: “I wonder if in 50 years someone else will be standing here, talking about tradition and how all of this started with two farmers who wanted to change their lives.” 

Saleta Beiro of Visit Skellefteä greets a cow at Svedjan Ost

The scale of what these humble farmers have created becomes apparent when Pär leads us to the aging room, where 16,500 pounds of Svedjan Gårdsost rest on spruce shelvesThis aged farmstead cheese boasts notes of ripe pear and citrus balanced by subtle nut-butter flavors; it develops lovely crystals while aging for at least 14 months. As we wander through the rows, shelves laden with cheese in various states of maturation from three weeks to nearly four years, my thoughts mischievously turn to the logistics of smuggling one of the 33-pound wheels out of the country. 

Svedjan Gårdsost has won the popular vote for best cheese three years in a row at the annual Stockholm Cheese Festival; it has earned two silver and three gold medals in the Eldrimner Food Craftsmanship championships, a yearly competition for food producers in the Nordic countries; and even found its way onto the table at the 2017 Nobel Prize dinner. Inspired by their accolades and fully in love with their way of life on the farmwhich they run alongside their daughter and cheesemaker prodigyMatildaPär and Johanna aren’t ready to call it a day.  

“I definitely think our best cheese is yet to come,” Pär says over lunch, holding up the piece of blue he sliced earlier that morning, admiring it in the daylight. Johanna nods in agreement and adds: [We try to] look for traditions and create something new.  

Summer Rylander

Summer Rylander is a freelance food and travel writer living in Germany. She has a thing for Swedish cheese, but the relationship is not exclusive. She can be found at Eat Something, Go Somewhere

One thought on “Discovering Cheese and Tradition in the Swedish North”

  1. I wish the Culture Cheese Mag could persuade American authorities to once again allow the import of Västerbottensost. It is not at all clear why they stopped it from being imported.

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