Västerbottensost: the king of Swedish cheeses
Västerbottensost: kungen av svenska ostar
Many good cheeses are produced in Sweden, especially goats' cheeses, but Västerbottensost towers above all the others and is used more than any other cheese in the recipes on this site.
Västerbottensost means Västerbotten's cheese. Västerbotten is a region in northern Sweden and ost means cheese, so Västerbottensost simply means a cheese from the Västerbotten region. Similarly, Västerbottensostpaj means, literally, Västerbotten cheese pie, although in the UK we would call it a flan or a quiche, rather than a pie.
- is a hard cows milk cheese,
- has a fairly high fat content (31%),
- has a fairly strong flavour,
- tastes something like a cross between Cheddar and Parmesan and is slightly salty,
- is a light yellow colour,
- has tiny holes and a firm granular texture.
Västerbottensost is always aged for at least 14 months and so, unlike Cheddar, mild versions are not available.
Västerbottensost is thought to have been invented in 1872 by Ulrika Eleonora Lindström, a dairy maid seen here later in life. According to the legend, she was left alone to stir the curd of a traditional cheese, but was interrupted by an assignation with her lover, a dairy hand. The cheese was neglected and didn't turn out as expected.
At first the cheese was considered a failure, but when it was tried again people decided it had a unique and very special taste. The exact details of how the cheese is made have been kept secret ever since and are known only to a very few people, but everyone seems to attribute it to Ulrika. It's such a lovely story I want to believe it, but I think her lover ought to get more credit!
In 1910 the distinctive W and crown shown above was registered with Sweden's Patent Office. From that point onwards any dairy in Västerbotten using "Ulrika's" recipe had to meet certain quality standards in order to have the W and the crown branded on to their cheese. It has been the sign of genuine cheese from Västerbotten ever since, although the name Västerbottensost wasn't chosen until 1935.
The distinctive W and crown remains the outward sign of genuine Västerbottensost to this day, although since 1974 the logo is printed on gold paper rather than being branded onto the cheese.
Since 1985 responsibility for the production of Västerbottensost has belonged to Norrmejerier, a Swedish dairy company. At the time of writing (2013), they produce about 7,900 kg (about 17,000 lb) of cheese per day although they have plans to increase production in 2014.
Milk from the Västerbotten region is still used and is first pasteurised to remove unwanted bacteria. Then the milk is curdled to separate the whey and make granular curds which are formed into the final cheese rounds. The rounds are 42 cm (16½") in diameter and weigh 18 kg (40 lb) each, the largest cheese rounds produced in Sweden. The rounds are then left on on spruce shelves to mature for at least 14 months.
In order to decide whether the cheeses are ready, a small piece is extracted using a drill, and then they are carefully assessed by one of the master cheese makers.
Västerbottensost is widely available in Scandinavia but elsewhere it is usually only available online or from specialist stores.
Waitrose, a leading British supermarket have started stocking their own label Vasterbottensost (they have replaced the letter ä with a). I organised a little test comparing Västerbottensost with Waitrose's Vasterbottensost. The conclusions were:
1. Both were very similar so that on a blind test it was hard to distinguish the cheeses,
2. Waitrose's Vasterbottensost was slightly paler looking,
3. Waitrose's Vasterbottensost tasted slightly less creamy,
4. Västerbottensost is normally only available in the UK prewrapped in 450 g (1 lb) packs where Waitrose's Vasterbottensost is cut to order at their cheese counter,
5. Shops stocking Västerbottensost often have a low turnover so check the use-by date before buying,
6. Västerbottensost is normally £22 per kg whereas Waitrose's Vasterbottensost is £19.90 per kg but it is often on special offer.
In short, Västerbottensost is only very slightly better than Vasterbottenost, but the difference is marginal. I would buy whichever is more convenient, especially for cooking.
Although it is possible to substitute a mature (aged) Cheddar or Parmesan neither is really quite the same, so do try and buy Västerbottensost if you can.
Although Västerbottensost is used in many recipes it is also eaten on knäckebröd with fruit such as figs, grapes or, as shown above, hjortron (cloudberries). It should be served at room temperature.
Västerbottensostpaj (Västerbotten cheese flan) is popular all over Sweden and appears at most festivals, especially at Christmas and at crayfish parties, where it also goes down well with a glass of snaps. Ready-made Västerbottensostpaj are sold in supermarkets and at farmers' markets in Sweden, but it is easy to make your own using our recipe. Read more…
Other recipes using Västerbottensost
There are whole books of Västerbottensost recipes, but four of my favourites are:
• Shavings of Västerbottensost are added to hjortkött carpaccio med rödbetor (venison capaccio with beetroot), an excellent and easy starter or a nice light lunch,
• Västerbottensost-flarn (Västerbottensost tuiles) are easy to make and can be spiced with the addition of chilli flakes or olives,
• Vaniljmarinerad Västerbottensost (Västerbottensost marinated with vanilla) is an interesting appetiser for a drinks party.
Västerbottensost can also be used in many dishes instead of Parmesan, such as svamprisotto (mushroom risotto), and in place of Cheddar, such as in a cheesey potato mash that goes particularly well with venison.
Enjoy cooking with Västerbottensost!
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