Welcome back! If you're joining for the recap of my Swedish road trip adventure, catch up with Part 1 first, otherwise you won't know a thing about dragons in Sundsvall or Skellefteå's most unassuming sourdough.
If you're just here for the cheese content, feel free to read on.
Let's head over to a little town called Burträsk...
...home of my beloved Västerbottensost!
To clarify: Västerbotten is a county in Sweden, ost is the Swedish word for cheese, thusly Västerbottensost technically means 'cheese that comes from Västerbotten County.' This one is not, of course, the only cheese produced in the county, but this particular ost has been made since 1872 and trademarked as Västerbottensost since 1910, so any references by name here are indeed about the Västerbottensost.
While the dairy is [sadly] not accessible to visitors, the Västerbottensost folks opened a visitor's center in 2012 that welcomes the public seven days a week during summer months. The center (which is attached to the dairy...so close...) consists of a cafe and an educational gallery sharing photos, details, and a few artifacts from the cheese's history and its rise to Swedish fame. Brief tours of the gallery are offered (in Swedish) each day at 11:00 and 14:00, and there's no fee to enter the center nor to listen in on the tour.
The cafe serves coffee, sandwiches, pastries, and sells the freshest wedges of Västerbottensost you'll find anywhere. You can purchase regular vacuum-sealed pieces of cheese, yes, but you can also buy wedges that have been cut from the wheel so recently they've only been wrapped in cling film. As much as I would have loved to secure one of these ultra-fresh pieces for myself, Västerbottensost tends to sweat and I knew cling wrap would not be an ideal storage solution for another four days + our flights back to Germany, so I purchased responsibly.
As you can see, V-bott (as I affectionately refer to it sometimes) can be acquired in a variety of sizes and in two shapes. The wedge shape is most common, but it's the big round piece, appropriately referred to as the "filet," that is considered to be the prime cut. The literal centerpiece of a wheel, this kilo-sized chunk of cheese is alleged to collect the most flavor as the wheel is rotated and rested during the 14+ months of aging.
Let's talk about that for a second:
Each wheel of Västerbottensost is 42 centimeters (16.5 inches) in diameter and weighs 18 kilos (39.68 pounds)—large by Swedish cheese standards—and is aged for a minimum of 14 months on shelves made from local spruce. During their first three weeks, the giant rounds of impending deliciousness are turned over each day before being dipped into protective paraffin and allowed to continue maturing.
Remember when I wrote about my exciting-but-slightly-embarrassing on-stage experience at the Stockholm Cheese Festival back in February? That time I tested a wheel of cheese with the Västerbottensost cheesemaster himself, Thomas Rudin? Yep, that's the very same process they use to test each batch right here in Burträsk to determine, months later, whether the cheeses are at the appropriate stage of readiness for sale.
(Speaking of sales, we secured a "filet" for ourselves and a few mini-wedges to share with friends here in Germany.)
So how did Västerbottensost come about in the first place? What's the story behind this crystalline, aromatic cheese with its inherent fruity, salty dewiness that manages to balance flavors both bitter and sweet...?
It all started in 1872 with a woman by the name of Ulrika Eleonora Lindström. Three years prior, Ulrika had used an inheritance of 500 Swedish crowns to attend dairy school, where she learned the art of cheesemaking. She began her farm work as a maid, but within three years she rose to the position of dairy maid and found herself in charge of cheese production. As rumor has it, one fateful day as Ulrika was tending to a new batch of cheese, she became distracted—perhaps by a lover, ooh la la—and neglected to keep an eye on the vat as the milk was curdling. The resulting cheese was assumed to be a failure, but fortunately someone had the good sense to taste it anyway and realized that it was delightful. Ulrika took notes of what she'd inadvertently done differently that day and adjusted her recipe.
Ulrika passed away in 1892 from pneumonia at the age of just 56, but thanks to her meticulous record-keeping, her cheese recipe lived on and has been carefully passed down through trustworthy dairy maids and master cheesemakers ever since.
(The dairy maid model shown above is actually in the likeness of Gerda Granberg, who lived from 1896 - 1986 and was one of the few to whom Ulrika's recipe was entrusted. )
Over subsequent decades, there have been many attempts to replicate Västerbottensost outside of Burträsk. It never works. Even transporting the very same milk to another facility outside of Burträsk and following the exact recipe ends in failure. As a result, there's a certain ~mystique~ surrounding this cheese.
I love a good mystery as much as anyone, but I do feel it important to point out that cheese is a living, ever-changing thing. While the term terroir is often reserved for the discussion of wine, the word and the very concept of terroir encapsulates everything about the conditions in which a food item is produced. With cheese, it's easy enough to think that we start with the milk from the cows (or goats, sheep, buffalo...as Västerbottensost is a cow's milk cheese, let's stick with this noble creature for now), but really, it starts with the characteristics of what those cows are consuming.
Are they grazing on grass in a green, sprawling pasture? Great! But is that pasture treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides? How's the soil quality? (The soil in Burträsk is calcareous, which means it's chalky and lime-rich—a trait that some attribute to an ancient meteor strike.) How has the weather been this season, last season, the season before? Is the cows' diet supplemented with grain feed? What kind of grains? Under what conditions were those grown and processed? How is the overall health of the cows? If a cow has fallen ill, what medicines may it have been treated with?
You see where I'm going with all of this, yes? Everything about those cows and their environment factors into the quality and flavor of their milk—and this is before we've even gotten to the actual cheese production process.
Considering as much, it's maybe not so hard to believe after all that Västerbottensost cannot be replicated elsewhere. These unique factors are what make artisan cheeses—from anywhere, arguably—so special. Even with the same raw materials, the same recipes, the same processes, when you're working with living organisms there is only so much of a true constant that is possible. These are the reasons why we might open a bottle of wine to find that we prefer the 2011 vintage over the 2010, or why a loaf of sourdough bread pulled from the oven today can taste more pungent than one baked last week from the very same starter culture.
Fermentation is a wild and beautiful thing, and Burträsk is definitely a special place.
Perhaps the best way to sum up the joy of my long-awaited pilgrimage to Burträsk is to leave you with a few words from our friendly visitor's center guide, a youthful and enthusiastic lad who has spent his last three summers working with the company and offered this thought when I asked him if there was anything in particular I should share with the world about Västerbottensost:
"In my personal opinion, I think it's the best cheese in the world." - Mårten
I tend to agree.