Trevor Warmedahl is an expert cheesemaker, cheese educator and writer. He travels the world, volunteering with cheesemakers and herders to study grazing practices and milk fermentation. This summer he visited dairy farmers and cheesemakers in Norway to learn more about a member of an ancient family of rennet-less local cheeses called Pultost and the traditional farming systems it belongs to.
Sitting at a wooden table inside a log cabin full of antique furniture, cookware, and butter-making equipment in a small village 150 kilometres north of Oslo, I was jet-lagged but hungry to taste one of Norway’s endangered cheeses. A small container of various-sized chunks of a nearly transparent yellow cheese speckled with caraway seeds sat in front of me. The smell was peculiar, and my mind struggled to classify it. Some would call it gamey or stinky, but those terms mean little, and many consider them derogatory. The aroma was intriguing; complex, primal, meaty. This is Pultost, and I had come to Norway to explore how cheeses like it are made and learn about a traditional farming system that involves transhumance (seasonal movement of livestock) to mountain farms known as seters.
It was on such a seter farm that I now found myself, Braskerudsetra, in the green heart of Southern Norway listening to the stories of a 13th generation dairyman and knowledge holder named Erik Fleischer and his husband Roy Leirvik who is a vet, farmer and cheesemaker. The two of them are proudly making a constellation of regional dairy foods that fit together in an efficient, zero-waste process.
Some cheeses can speak, and this is what Pultost revealed to me: milk, like all nectars of the body, is sacred. All aspects of it are food for some creature, micro or macro, and we are always entangled with larger cycles of life feeding on life. Pultost is a messenger from the past, with lessons for the present and future.
The histories of some of the world’s dairy-centred food cultures are defined by their main product: butter. Butter is a concentration of milk that is also a primary cooking fat and has been used as a currency. Taxes have been paid in butter; goods purchased from the corner store in bars of edible gold. Butter results from the mechanical churning of cream that has generally been soured; that is, fermented. Often this fermentation is enabled by adding a small dose from a previous batch of sour cream, which contains acid-producing bacteria native to raw milk and the environment in which the milk is processed. Or the bacteria are sourced from a packaged starter culture. When butter is the main source of farm income, the question becomes: what to do with all the skim milk? In some places, it is fed to pigs, or back to dairy-livestock. In others, it is dumped on fields, or put down the drain and treated as a by-product. But it can also be made into cheese.
A whole category of historical skim milk cheeses can be found in various butter-producing regions. These are generally made without rennet and are coagulated by applying high heat to fermented (sour) milk instead. It is speculated that this style of cheese has been made in Norway for over one thousand years. As the styles of rennet-coagulated cheese common today became more popular, this ancient family of rennet-less skim-milk cheeses have become marginalised, and now only exist in small pockets. They have a particular texture, due to the high protein and low fat content. They often exhibit a peculiar crumble that has a tendency to break down into a gummy, translucent gel, sometimes in a halo around the outside of a large wheel. This is the case in the most famous example; Graukase made in Sudtirol, which is nominally a part of Italy, but culturally much closer to Austria. Or Dambalkhacho which is made as a hand-shaped ball in a few villages in Georgia where I visited last year. Pultost is different in that it is flavoured with caraway, and is not a wheel or ball, but consists of loose chunks that in some varieties soften into more of a paste.
Pultost is nestled within a package of dairy foodways and land-use practices that evolved in Norway and have been fine-tuned to fit its various geographies and climates. The aspect of this package that I have focused on is the small-scale dairying involving lowland farms where cows are kept inside barns during the long and cold winter and spring. During this time grass doesn’t grow – and is sometimes buried under snow – or the pastures are too wet to allow livestock to graze without doing damage. The solution that has evolved in many regions of the far north, or mountainous places further south, is to capture the bounty of the summer in dehydrated form. Grasses and other plants grow rapidly in the short window of ideal temperatures. These were cut in the past by hand scything. Now it is mainly done by tractor, and steep hayfields that are not conducive to machinery have been abandoned.
Mountain landscapes in many parts of Norway and continental Europe are shifting from open meadows back to shrubs and forests as grazing animals are removed. In many places, agricultural landscapes are mosaics of pasture, hayfields, arable crops, forest in many stages of succession, scrub, riparian corridors, and wetlands. This mosaic is in part maintained by human/livestock/grassland symbioses. Removing the impact of responsible forms of grazing and woodcutting, the ecology reverts to a less diverse format.
This is a crucial point. Human agriculture and the raising of livestock can be more than sustainable and actually have beneficial impacts on landscapes and the organisms living there. This was largely lost with the advent of industrial dairy farming with its scale, imported inputs, and push to maximise output which caused sustainable to shift to detrimental. But other ways of doing things still exist. They and have a long, successful track record that can be learned from once again. When I say Pultost is worth preserving, I am talking about the whole farming system behind it, of which it is a tangible, edible symbol.
An important part of traditional dairy farming in Norway is the movement of livestock in the summer from the lowland farm to a higher area known as a seter, or støl. This is a form of vertical transhumance; a sustenance strategy still practised in many places, although is it definitely on the decline globally. In some countries, it is recognised as a UNESCO article of intangible cultural heritage. The organisation Norsk Seterkultur, along with other groups in Sweden, has applied this year (2023) to gain this status for seter farming.
By taking the animals up, the precious arable land close to the farms could be used to grow wheat and other grains. In other areas, pastures were allowed to recover and grow to be cut and stored as hay for the next winter, sometimes at mid-elevation sites between the low farms and seters. Multi-year rotations took place, with fields serving various functions. Fertility was maintained by the spreading of manure. In a historical model that is becoming less common, cut grass is raked into windrows in the fields, and these long lines turned while drying over a few days of clear, warm weather. This process had to be timed precisely, with accurate weather prediction; rain or even fog could spoil the result. Another technology that can still be found is the use of hay fences, with the cut plants placed on multiple tiers of wire strung tightly between poles. The dry hay was stored loose in the huge haylofts of barns, above the animals housed in the lower levels.
Traditionally, the men stayed in the lowlands and took care of hay cutting and the raising of grain crops in the summer, while women and children went with dairy herds and pigs to the mountain farms. These consist of a collection of wood buildings built on-site or moved from another location. The buildings often have thick sod roofs that provide superb insulation. Plants on these sod roofs spread roots, and grow tall, mimicking the adjacent pastures. These roofs blend the structures into the surrounding land, and the line between human-built and naturally occurring is blurred. The cows feed on meadows maintained by their grazing and fertilised by their manure. The diverse plants of these meadows are converted into milk, which is preserved as an array of dairy foods, some of which will be used throughout the winter.
These were some of the things that I was fascinated to learn while spending five days at Braskerudsetra. Roy and Erik milk their sixteen cows every morning and evening in a rustic stable built of logs. This milk is separated immediately, while still udder-warm, with a centrifuge that splits the milk into two streams. Thick, yellowish cream from one spout; thin, white skim milk from the other. After sitting for 24 – 48 hours, the skim milk sours, coagulates and divides into layers of soft, fragile curd and clear, sour whey. Multiple days’ worth of this soured curd and whey are poured into a copper pot and heated very slowly, over five to six hours. By the time it nears 60 degrees Celsius, the soft curd has hardened and forms a large raft, bulging on the surface, with little cracks forming as steam pushes through.
The mass of curd is removed from the whey and placed in cloths, which are hung to drain. After dinner, the curd is removed from the bags and crumbled by hand into small pieces ranging from mustard seed to peanut size. This is done in a gorgeous wood trough made specifically for this, that is never fully washed, and cannot be sanitised. It likely serves as a carrier for the particular yeast strains that will perform the next phase of the Pultost life cycle.
The secondary fermentation involves leaving the broken curds in a pile inside the wood trough. By the next evening, 24 hours after the first crumbling, Roy is hoping to detect aromas of acetone and bananas, indications of yeast growth. The pile had been left undisturbed, and placing my hand inside it I was shocked to feel that it was hot, 34 degrees Celsius in a room that was a cool 15 degrees. The increased surface area of the small bits of cheese is similar to chipped wood in a compost heap. Yeasts grow rapidly, throwing off this heat, making the cheese-less sour and setting off a chain of metabolic reactions that will lead to the specific textural and flavour characteristics of Pultost. Ideally, the temperature begins to taper down on its own, and the curds will eventually be salted and have caraway added. It can be eaten now but should sit at ambient temperature for a few weeks to develop its characteristic flavours and textures.
What is the future of cheeses like Pultost, and the seter farming system? According to Roy: “The future of the cheese is very uncertain! There is only one commercial dairy, TINE, producing Pultost, in one of the smallest dairies they own. As far as we know there has never been any national advertisement from TINE about Pultost.” The challenges are daunting, as each year there are fewer producers, and fewer farmers going to the mountains. Those who are able to survive have often begun to incorporate experiential culinary tourism and direct sales into their seter farming routine. Braskerudsetra, for example, is open to the public two days a week, and large groups of hikers come for a lunch of sour cream porridge, pancakes, and endless cups of the Norwegian national beverage: black coffee. Like small-scale farmers in many countries, Erik and Roy are finding that what they are selling is not just food. It’s their story, their hospitality, and a peek into their lives. It’s the direct experience of being on the farm, learning about the food from the people who make it.
Another seter I visited, Renndølsetra, has a thriving guesthouse with hikers coming to stay overnight in a rustic lodge. Cows are milked, and milk is processed into cheese and dairy foods that are served and sold onsite. Hikers stop in to eat waffles with sour cream and berries while taking in the breathtaking views, complete with cows and sheep roaming about bucolically. However, despite the fame of the place, the owners find they are barely able to make ends meet, as the local farming community around them disappears rapidly. At a valley farm called Avdem Gardysteri, I saw a larger-scale operation that incorporates a well-executed and popular farm store and cafe that overlooks the farmland of Lescja Valley. Nearly all of the producers I visited have some degree of direct, on-farm sales, often through self-service farm stores.
There is a degree of subsidy available in Norway that is aimed at encouraging small-scale dairying. How much of an impact this makes, and how successful the unstable government policy has been, is debatable. Farmers get subsidies for owning livestock, mountain or forest grazing on public land and keeping heritage breeds. These policies are helpful, but by themselves are not sufficient to push back the tide that is washing these practices away. It seems to me that a larger issue is a lack of pride amongst Norwegians for these cheeses. Consumers tend to favour cheeses from continental Europe over Pultost, which for some carries connotations of backwardness.
There is a noticeable lack of cheese shops, mongers, and other commercial entities in Norway that could be champions for these endangered foods. Camilla Sæbjørnsen of Norsk Gardsost told me “Since Norway is a long country geographically, and the cheese shops are mainly in the big cities, the farmers themselves have started their own farm shops selling their own and other local products. The amount is increasing which is very positive for the consumers that now have started to demand local products.” It is very fortunate that there are organisations such as Norsk Gardsost working to raise awareness and promote Norwegian artisan cheese. The World Cheese Awards will be held in Trondheim in October 2023, bringing global attention to the community of cheesemakers blending old and new approaches in innovative ways.
Pultost is different from other cheeses. It is not made to appeal to the masses, to conform to outside ideals of how cheese should taste. Many will not enjoy it, and that is fine. It is old school and unabashedly unique. The story behind it adds a depth and richness that its makers can monetise, to increase the chances of its survival. The positive ecological benefits of the seter farming system, and the practical, zero-waste aspects of this cheese make it enormously relevant. I don’t want to romanticise the past and say everyone should follow rigidly defined tradition, but I do believe that more modern manifestations of these systems, ones that perhaps incorporate new technology, should be considered valuable. My hope is that the farmer cheesemakers I’ve met can continue to make Pultost and that humanity can realise the value in the heritage and wisdom contained in these foods that carry such a powerful message.
Trevor Warmedahl is a nomadic cheesemaker, dairy researcher, and writer who studies grazing and milk-fermentation practices all over the world. He publishes on Substack as Milk Trekker. Read his article for The Common Table about his journey through the Caucasus Mountains searching for a very special kind of ancient cheese here.
Title image: Vet, farmer and cheesemaker Roy Leirvik cleaning a cow’s udder in preparation for milking. Photo © Trevor Warmedahl