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Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

From Danbo to Danablu and the Danish feta that can't be called feta - Denmark produces over four hundred thousand tonnes of cheese each year and exports it across the world. So why is Danish cheese so popular, and what are the country's best-loved cheeses?

Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?
Arla's Dairy in Videbæk. Photo: Ernst van Norde/Ritzau Scanpix

Cheese-making is a serious business in Denmark. In 2021, the country produced a total of 454,500 tonnes of cheese and Danish cheese has won awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest.

The tradition goes back to the Viking era and today, the country’s climate and pastoral land make it ideal for producing cheese (ost). About three quarters of the country’s milk production is turned into cheese, butter and milk powder.

Not only is cheese popular in Denmark, where it’s eaten with pretty much any meal and snack (can you even have a bolle [bread roll] without ost?), it is also eaten around the world in countries including South Korea, New Zealand, Canada, Nigeria and even France.

In 2021, Denmark exported a total of 401,845 tonnes of cheese, making it one of the top cheese exporters in the world. The biggest importer of Danish cheese was Germany (94,419 tonnes), followed by Sweden (52.924 tonnes) and the UK (42,905 tonnes). 18,097 tonnes of cheese was exported to Japan and 5,657 to the United States.

What types of cheese does Denmark make?

The different types of cheese in Denmark can be hard to distinguish and there are a lot of them. You can quite easily end up with a fridge full of strong smells that you weren’t expecting. 

Danbo, often called ‘Denmark’s national cheese’, is the most produced and consumed cheese in Denmark. It has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status, meaning it can only be made in Denmark to specific Danish standards.

Danbo is sold under various trade and brand names, including LillebrorGamle Ole, and Riberhus. Lillebror (meaning Little brother) is very mild and often sold in childrens’ packs, whereas Gamle Ole (meaning Old Ole) is matured for a long time, which means it’s strong and smelly. Caraway seeds are sometimes added to this cheese.

Esrom also has Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk. It is semi-soft with small holes and is pretty pungent.

Havarti is one of the most famous Danish cheeses. It’s a bit like a cheddar in that the taste can be mild, but the longer the cheese is stored, the stronger it gets. 

Danablu is a Danish Blue soft blue cheese, similar to Roquefort. It has a strong aroma and a sharp and a little salty taste. Danablu is often used in America to make blue cheese dressing for salads and blue cheese dip for chicken wings. 

A dairy farm in Klemensker, Bornholm has twice been named world champion in cheese making. Photo: Morten Juhl/Ritzau Scanpix

Mycella is a veined blue cheese made from pasteurised cow’s milk on the island of Bornholm and is similar to Gorgonzola. It goes well in a salad or cheese platter or even crumbled on top of an open sandwich.

Blå kornblomst, meaning ‘blue cornflower’, is a creamy blue cheese with a mild, slightly salty taste. The cheese is white to yellowish with blue tinges and is made from pasteurised cow’s milk on North Jutland.

Danish rygeost, meaning ‘smoked cheese’ is mild, light and smokey. It originates from 19th century Funen, with some believing it dates back to the Viking Age. 

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese.

A dish of potato, monkfish and smoked cheese. Photo: Thomas Lekfeldt/Ritzau Scanpix

Vesterhavsost, meaning ‘North Sea Cheese’, is a semi-hard cheese with a slightly salty taste as it is ripened in the sea air of North Jutland. It’s referred to as the Danish version of Gouda. 

Fyrmester or Fyrtårnsost, meaning ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ or ‘Lighthouse Cheese’, is an extra-mature version of the vesterhavsost, aged for at least 52 weeks.

Samsø cheese is similar to Emmentale and made on the island of Samsø in Kattegat.

Hvid ost, meaning ‘white cheese’, is Denmark’s equivalent to feta cheese but uses cow’s milk rather than the goat or sheep’s milk used in Greek feta cheese. It’s milder and doesn’t crumble like Greek feta cheese because it’s made differently, using something called ultrafiltration.

There have been debates as to whether this actually makes it feta cheese. Earlier this year, Denmark lost a case at the European Court of Justice over its farmers exporting cheese outside the EU labelled feta, something only Greece can do. The cheese is sometimes labelled in supermarkets as ‘salad cubes’ (salat-tern).

There is, perhaps, one thing that unites almost all Danish cheeses: they are sliced using the characteristic ostehøvl (cheese slicer), the quintessential Danish kitchen utensil.

There are two types of ostehøvl: a wire-based type and a version that looks a bit like a trowel, with a raised edge and a gap in the middle for the sliced cheese to pass through.

Cheese vocab:

Blød ost: Soft cheese

Halvfast ost: Semi-soft cheese 

Fast ost: Semi-hard cheese 

Hård ost: Hard cheese

Ekstra hård ost: Extra hard cheese

Frisk ost: Fresh cheese

Ostehøvl: cheese slicer

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How Denmark plans to keep gastronomy star in post-Noma era

With off-the-wall dishes like butterfly wings or simple local products, restaurants in Denmark, the recent darling of the culinary world, are outdoing each other to emulate Noma, a soon-shuttering three-starred eatery.

How Denmark plans to keep gastronomy star in post-Noma era

Tucked away at the far end of an industrial zone in an old shipyard, Alchemist is turning food into gold, offering its fortunate-enough visitors —
the single set menu costs 4,900 kroner — a “holistic experience” consisting of 50 “impressions”.

“The ambition is to change the world through gastronomy and try to make a very immersive experience (by) bringing different artistic fields into the
culinary world,” says Alchemist’s 32-year-old chef, Rasmus Munk.

And that experience is drawing crowds. Around 10,000 people are usually on the waiting list at Alchemist, which serves 52 people a day.

Behind a heavy bronze door, diners are plunged into an almost mystical ambiance, including music and light effects and a contemporary dance

A first room is reserved for the bite-size amuse-bouches.

Guests then head into “the dome” for the rest of the meal, enjoyed under a cupola screening colourful scenes of ocean life ravaged by plastic pollution,
followed by anxiety-inducing news reports.

For one dish, caviar is placed in the pupil of a fake eyeball made from dried cod broth. Here, titillating diners’ minds is almost more important than
teasing their tastebuds.

“My favourite part is when people begin to debate and create some interaction with the food and experiences,” says Munk, whose establishment has
two Michelin stars.

Noma, ranked the best restaurant in the world several times, announced in January that it would close for good at the end of 2024 to reinvent itself as
a food laboratory.

But Denmark has a long line of restaurants that continue to attract foodie tourists.

On Monday, five new eateries were awarded their first Michelin stars.

Søren Wiuff, asparagus farmer, inspects his field outside the village of Gislinge, Denmark, on May 24th 2023. Photo: Sergei GAPON / AFP

A hundred kilometres west of Copenhagen, diners can have a completely different gastronomic experience at Mota.

Located in a former psychiatric hospital, the restaurant is quiet, simple and bucolic, and gives pride of place to local products.

But despite the tranquil feel, Mota, recently opened by another star of Danish cuisine Claus Henriksen, is “a place where you’re allowed to do a lot
of crazy things”.

Surrounded by an abundant flora and fauna offering up mushrooms, asparagus, algae and hake, Henriksen picks what he can from his nearby surroundings to
compose his menus.

“Twenty years ago we did a lot of classic French, Italian cooking… We forgot our own products,” says the 42-year-old chef. 

Even the wine menu features local bottles, which are gaining renown amid Europe’s warming climate.

The focus on local Nordic flavours and ethical cuisine — a movement started by Noma founder Rene Redzepi — has enabled restaurateurs to reinvent
Scandinavian cooking, and reap the financial benefits.

Almost 40 percent of recent tourists to Copenhagen said they visited for the cuisine.

Henriksen said he spent two “wonderful” years working in Redzepi’s kitchen.

“There was a creativity. It was also a place where you could find your different ways of being, there (was) an important way of looking at products,”
he recalled.

Putting Denmark on the culinary map, Noma also attracted young chefs from around the world to the small windswept country.

Long gone are Denmark’s days of boiled potatoes, pork chops and gravy.

In their place is a plethora of refined dishes topped with Nordic berries and edible flowers.

“I could watch it developing, getting more people more and more interested,” says Louise Bannon, an Irish former chief pastry chef at Noma and
now a baker in vogue in Denmark.

“People have travelled all over the world to go and work there (and) to go eat there,” she notes.

During her years at Noma, she developed a hankering for bread baking.

After months spent travelling and training to hone her skills, she returned to Denmark and now makes her bread solely with flour milled locally, including
her own.

She says her customers, many of whom own vacation homes at the tip of a wild peninsula, are connoisseurs who can tell the difference.

“People here really appreciate the quality. If you’re using fresh flour they know… they can taste it and they will pay for the quality.”