As I reached the small village of Burträsk in northern Sweden, I saw snow piled by the roadsides like icing and a group of reindeer sitting down for a rest. When I got out of the car to take a photograph, they stood up, crossed the road and disappeared into the woods.
I had come to Burträsk to learn about a secret that felt as elusive as these animals. In this Swedish village, they make a hard yellow cheese dotted with tiny holes called Västerbottensost. If you attend one of Sweden’s traditional summer crayfish parties, you’ll most likely find it served alongside succulent crustaceans and copious schnapps. It’s been on the menu at royal weddings, Nobel Prize dinners and Copenhagen super-restaurant Noma. Famed Swedish playwright August Strindberg mentioned it in his poetry, and Prince Hassan of Jordan said it’s “what I love most about Sweden”.
With a reputation like this, it’s understandable that demand for the cheese is high. But when the dairy tried to expand production by starting an operation in the nearby city of Umeå, it didn’t taste the same. It turns out that for the cheese can only be made in Burträsk – and no one knows why. Not even after using forensic DNA analysis techniques or making 12 documentaries about Västerbottensost.
Its been suggested that the cheese’s unique flavour could be due to the local spruce shelves that it’s left to mature on, the particular microflora in the dairy building, or even long summer days affecting the mood of the cows. According to the most intriguing theory, the beloved taste is all down to a meteorite that struck the area long ago, creating the lake next to Burträsk and making the soil rich in calcium, which in turn created knock-on effects on the milk and the cheese-making process.
If that ancientrock really did land here, however, then the shock waves have long since dispersed. When I arrived, things were pretty peaceful. The dairy roof was covered in a layer of snow, and the sun glinted off the metallic lettering on the red-brick exterior. Burträsk is less than 300km from the Arctic Circle, and the locals are used to dark winters. But today spring was emerging, with wispy clouds stretched across the bright blue sky. Inside the dairy’s spacious visitor centre, light flooded in through a large window.
All around the room were displays about the cheese, its history and its place in Swedish culture. I was shown around by Inga Lill-Eklund, who now works in the cafe but spent 35 years in the dairy’s laboratory, taking samples of the bacteria in the milk. Inga’s son, Thomas, is the current master cheese maker, as the head of the dairy is known.
According to legend, Inga said, the cheese was created in 1872 by mistake. The story goes that a Burträsk dairymaid called Ulrika Eleonora Lindstrom was distracted from her cheese-making duties by a lover; the process was prolonged and she had to keep reheating the curds. The resulting cheese was left to age anyway, and when someone tasted it they realised the happy accident.
The precise recipe is still a secret – but the logistics of making the cheese haven’t changed much over the years. The milk is delivered from 20 to 30 different local farms, pasteurised and curdled. Inga explained that the consistency of the cheese in the curdling vat is still hand tested, to judge its feel in the fingers. The granular curds that emerge after the liquid whey is drained are packed inside linen cloths into a round mould, turned several times by hand, and soaked in brine according to a strict schedule. The resulting cheeses (which weigh 18kg each) are then left to age for at least 14 months at a nearby warehouse. The small dairy, with only 25 people working on a typical shift, makes 4,000 tonnes of Västerbottensost a year.
After hearing all these stories, I finally got to taste Västerbottensost – sliced and served on bread most traditionally. However, the cafe offers a range of other dishes that highlight its versatility. You might find it with smoked salmon in a lasagne, with chicken in a pasta sauce or sprinkled on soup. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to try Västerbottensost ice cream, made by adding grated cheese to the cream and eggs before freezing – and best served with warm cloudberries or arctic brambles.
I chose to accompany my cheese with some biscuits and fruit syrup.It was tangy, like Parmesan, but subtler and creamier with nutty and fruity notes. The otherwise smooth texture was pleasantly interrupted by the crunch of small crystals. It’s been said that the cheese encompasses all the major flavour categories: sweet, sour, salty and bitter, plus the all-important umami. Like a good wine, it was hard to pin down. Which of course made it my duty to take another chunk. And another one.
So what is it about the process of making Västerbottensost that gives it this memorable flavour? Perhaps it would help to borrow another idea from wine: terroir, the unquantifiable combination of local conditions and culture that contribute to the final product. There may be no single factor that unlocks the secret to the cheese – but its enigmatic flavour could only be created here.
If the theories were given marks for effort, though, the meteorite would have to win hands down. Given the closeness of this region to the edge of the world, it would certainly be appropriate if the answer came from outer space.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the location of the village of Burträsk.