Appreciated and savored all around the world, cheese has its empire in Europe well established and reigning among other countries. With a projection of consuming approximately 9000 tons of cheese in 2020, the Europeans have a long and rich history in producing countless types of this dairy delicacy.
The actual time and place where cheese was first made are still unclear, its descriptions are both in Greek Mythology under the God Aristaeus, and in Egyptian tombs dating more than 4000 years. But it's most likely to have started with the domestication of milk-producing animals, primarily sheep, around 8 to 10.000 years ago. During the Roman Empire, the production of cheese was widespread around Europe, with hundreds of varieties being traded and consumed. To the Nordic, livestock farming began in the late Stone Age. People and animals had to adapt to harsh conditions, and farmers had diets composed mostly of milk and other dairy products, and grains like wheat and rye, to also feed the animals. So, historically, animal husbandry, especially of cows, has been a determinant factor in agriculture.
During the early 1900s, the Finnish government wanted to ensure a proper diet for the nation. Programs and educational organizations were established to brand the image of milk as a nation-building health factor. The milk industry developed new products and made people realize the benefits of milk and dairy products. Valio, the central co-operative, dominates the milk supply. And, not a surprise, even the industrial cheese market.
But it's always important to remember the role of small companies, as they don't have the same brand reach as the big industries. As Heidi Heikkilä from Arctic Milk says, "Consumer awareness of small producers' products is important. It would be important that customers demanded products to be available in the stores based on specific name and public feedback."
With six traditional types, Finland is a cheese aficionado country. As milk consumption drops each year, cheese is only going up. In 2018, 26 kg of cheese was consumed by each Finn, and this number puts the country in the top 5 of the biggest eaters, together with Denmark and Iceland. This information follows the prior exploration of how cold weather and livestock farming led to large milk consumption. Most cheeses of the region have the same flavor profile: mild, fresh to semi-hard, a few blue cheeses, produced with pasteurized cow milk.
Leipäjuusto, the most traditional Finnish cheese with more than 200 years of history, brings back tastes from the past. "I have noticed that people have memories related to this cheese. In many cases, people had it home as a child, from the milk of their own farm, and this taste is compared to the leipäjuusto available in our store today" says Eveliina Jukkola from the family of cheesemakers Jukkolan. Baked in the cheesemaking process, the heat caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the cheese to form a tasty crust and a chewy texture.
We all praise and love good traditional cheese, and the "squeaky cheese" is one of them, with a side of cloudberry jam. And cheesemakers are also innovating not just the classic and traditional, but also foreign cheeses with Nordic touches. Like Peter Dörig from Herkkujuustola, a Swiss cheese producer working in Sastamala. "Mozzarella you can spice up with herbs from this country. Camembert, you can fill up with local mushrooms. Or in a washed cheese you can use sahti. So many international brands do it, so it's easy to do something similar here, with a nordic taste or a nordic touch", he says.
The variety of dairy products in the Nordic countries is enormous and reveals a lot about the history and the common agricultural background. As we all love cheese, from the North to the South, East to West, it's hard to think of something as universal as this fermented delicacy. As Shakespeare wrote once, "to brie or not to brie?". Is that even a question?