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FOOD & DRINK

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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FOOD & DRINK

How does food qualify as organic in Denmark?

Denmark was the first country in the world to get its own organic law and the “Ø-label”, stating that food is organic, can be seen on around 13 percent of products across Denmark's supermarkets. But what does it mean about the food you're eating?

How does food qualify as organic in Denmark?

If you go to a Danish supermarket, you will notice many food products marked with a red “Ø” label. This organic label, which stands for økologisk (“organic”), was introduced in Denmark in 1990 and is “a very special stamp from Denmark,” according to Per Jensen, Organic consultant at agricultural advice company VKST.

It means the food you are eating has passed the Danish government’s regulations for organic produce; a law that was introduced in 1987 as the first organic law in the world and a law that has just raised the bar on how organic food is produced in Denmark.

The standards Danish organic farmers have to meet is higher than the regulations set out by the EU, which were first introduced in 1991.

“Organic essentially means no fertiliser,” Per Jensen told The Local. 

“However, you can use manure from farms that use fertiliser. The organic Danish farmers’ unions have pushed to change the rules so that from the 1st August 2022, no more than 45kg of nitrogen per hectare of manure can be used from farms using fertiliser that isn’t organic,” Jensen said.

Nitrogen is essential for plant growth but its supply can be limited, which is why it’s often applied as a fertiliser. There can however be some negative impacts on using fertiliser, such as polluting groundwater, which is why organic farmers don’t use it. But in Denmark, the country’s organic law goes further than many countries to eliminate traces of nitrogen. 

“On an organic farm in Denmark you need 20 percent of clover-like plants sewn in your field every year. These plants, like peas and horse beans connect nitrogen from the air, into the soil, so you don’t need to rely so much on manure. Some farmer don’t use manure at all and rely on clover plants,” Jensen explained to The Local.

There’s also a law that states 50 percent of crops in organic farms must make the soil rich in carbon, as well as a time limit of 8 hours on how long live animals can be transported.

This organic law is set and checked by the Danish government each year, on top of the regular EU checks. It results in food being given the prestigious Ø label and red crown and when exported, or bought in Danish supermarkets, consumers are “getting something special – there are no pesticides or herbicides in these products and they have a high level of credibility,” Jensen reiterated.

How much food is organic in Denmark?

In 2021, 11 percent of total farmland in Denmark was organic, which is roughly 312, 000 hectares. 

Organic food made up roughly 13 percent of the total retail food market in 2020 and proportionally, the organic market in Denmark is the biggest in the world, according to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council.

It states that the most popular organic products are eggs, (30 percent of total egg production is organic) oatmeal, wheat flour, carrots and bananas. One in three litres of milk bought by Danish consumers is organic and half of milk in Danish schools is organic.

In 2015, the Danish government announced “the world’s most ambitious” organic plan. It included doubling the amount of land dedicated to organic farming by 2020 compared to 2007 and serving more organic food in the nation’s public institutions.

According to a 2021 report by the University of Copenhagen, 22 percent of the food served in Denmark’s canteens, kindergartens and other public sector workplaces was organic. That compares to 39 percent in Sweden and just 1 percent in Norway.

In 2016 the City of Copenhagen announced that  88 percent of all food served in the city’s public institutions was organic, which was believed to be the highest percentage of organic food anywhere in the world.

However Jensen, organic consultant at agricultural advice company VKST, told The Local the ambitions to expand organic farmland had not yet been fulfilled. 

“Due to the war in Ukraine, the cost of manure is very expensive. So don’t expect a big increase in organic food at the moment,” Jensen said.

“Some farmers will stay as organic farmers no matter what. But others will change depending on the price. Sometimes being organic will be better money for the farmer but other times it won’t so, they’ll change to non-organic to grow for the best economical result,” he added.

Is organic food healthier?

A group of Danish researchers and academics presented a 136-page report to the Norwegian Food Directorate in 2021, which could not agree on whether organic food was healthier to eat than non-organic food.

“When it comes to nutrients it’s exactly the same as non-organic,” Karin Østergaard senior lecturer of Food Science and Nutrition at VIA University College, Aarhus, told The Local.

“The pesticides disintegrate into the soil quickly and you can’t use pesticides at all just before harvesting so you won’t find them when you eat the food,”  Østergaard said. She added that the limits set on pesticide use, plus all examinations on the food and health research means you shouldn’t be worried.

“The level of traceable pesticides on food in Denmark is very low compared to the EU in general and certainly outside the EU. So if you buy Danish products that are non-organic, you are still getting a very good product,” she added.

There was alarm in 2019 when traces of pesticides were found in drinking water in Denmark. Østergaard explained that these were aggressive pesticides that were banned many years ago that took a long time to reach the ground water. “The pesticides used today are not such a problem”, she said.

Despite the debate, organic food remains popular in Denmark.

“I think it’s because people today are beginning to think more of what they’re eating and they want a better product and that’s why they go to organic because they know it’s not been sprayed with fertiliser and the product is not a lot more expensive than non organic,” Jensen said.

But he predicts a drop in the number of people buying it.

“Right now there are other things that influence what people are buying, such as the rising cost of living so then you just have to buy the cheapest product.” 
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