Cheese from Reindeer

Found my first reindeer in Rovaniemi, Finland.
Found my first reindeer in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Dear Family and Friends,

Everyday I write about my experiences as a Watson Fellow but the unpredictability of life on the road has made it challenging to share updates. I have much to tell but will keep this post down to one story: My journey to the Arctic Circle and back in search of reindeer cheese.

Why, you might wonder, did I travel over 1,000 kilometers, stopping at almost every tourist center and cheese counter, across not only northern Norway but also Sweden and Finland, to inquire about this particular cheese?

My couch-surfing host, Aksu, helped in my search for reindeer cheese by taking me to meet cheese vendors in Rovaniemi, Finland.
My couch-surfing host, Aksu Wanhatalo, helped me search for reindeer cheese by introducing me to cheese vendors in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Because, in addition to my interest in cheese as a form of national self-identity, I want to learn about cheese that is off the beaten path.

I am also a very determined Watson Fellow. When I heard rumor of reindeer cheese but could then find no more information, I had to find answers for myself.

On August 6, I flew from Oslo to Alta and then traveled by bus through Lapland. I often felt a bit crazy (When, for example, I inquired about reindeer cheese at the Sami Parliament in Norway, the reception actually asked if I was joking…), but there were many wonderful aspects to the trip.

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From upper left to lower right: Marie Fenger, Thomas Rudin, Vibeke Elvenes, and Tine (Tine is Norway’s largest dairy cooperative).

Some of my favorite memories include:

  1.  Tracking down Marie Fenger, a Sami woman from Karasjok, Norway who, with the help of a translator, shared with me memories of reindeer cheese from her childhood (a time when her family still nomadically herded reindeer).
  2.  Meeting Thomas Rudin, the head cheesemaker at Vasterbottensost in Burträsk, Sweden, to discuss the role of small producers in global cheese markets.
  3. Having coffee with Vibeke Elvenes, director of Mattilsynet in Alta, to better understand Norway’s dairy regulations.
  4. Observing the administrative side of Norway’s cooperative farming system with Lina Maren, head of food safety at the Tine factory in Alta.

In spite of all these great conversations and miles traveled, I am disappointed to say that I never found reindeer cheese. My conversations did, however, lead me to one woman (perhaps the only one) in all of Scandinavia who still upholds the otherwise extinct tradition.

On August 14, I visited Lotta Swanson’s farm in Sweden. Together, we milked a reindeer and I got to taste the milk (so rich, so delicious, if you are curious).

Lotta, the last woman in all of Scandinavia who still milks reindeer, showed me how its done.
My first reindeer milking.

Lotta stopped making reindeer cheese a few years ago but she explained the process and the economic challenges of continuing the tradition. Reindeer, she says, produce so little milk that it is difficult to make any profit.

If, however, you still want to try reindeer cheese (as I do), there is a bright side to the story. Not long after leaving Lotta’s farm, I met with Totte Nordahl and Ella Carin, project managers for the Samiid Riikkasearvi Institute in Umea, Sweden.

Post-meeting photo with Totte and Ella in Umea, Sweden.
Post-meeting photo with Totte and Ella at the Samiid Riikkasearvi Institute in Umea, Sweden.

Both Totte and Ella have conducted extensive research to re-instate reindeer cheese production in Scandinavia. Maybe their business plan will take off someday.

Until then, I am back in Oslo and life is more stable. I am sharing an apartment with two young Norwegians and have spent the past week meeting with leading agricultural organizations. Most notably, I have met with the Norwegian Agency of Agriculture, the Norwegian F.D.A., and the Norwegian Farmer’s Union. I have also had some very valuable talks with smaller groups working to promote local food such as Bondens Marked, Fra Bonden til Kokken, and Mathallen.

In two weeks, I will fly to Bra, Italy for the Slow Food Cheese International event but for now I am very happy to be working on my project in one place.

Love to you all,

Linnea

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5 thoughts on “Cheese from Reindeer

  1. So, reindeer don’t make much milk and they’re not used in cheese production. I am curious: what, if anything, are they used for in animal husbandry (other than their well known role in helping to deliver presents at Christmastime).

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    1. The reindeer meat industry is actually quite huge in Norway! You can find reindeer meat in grocery stores and the meat is at the center of many traditional dishes.
      As Lotta would probably add, Sami herders only milked reindeer if they wanted dairy products during their long migrations. For them, the milk was viewed as a by-product of their ultimate goal: meat production. Thus, when Sami reindeer herders joined mainstream Norwegian culture after WW2 and acquired regular access to cheaper cow milk in supermarkets, the practice of reindeer cheese quickly disappeared.

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  2. What a great article! I too want to find out what reindeer cheese tastes like. Since the milk is so rich, I would imagine the cheese would be too. It’s a challenge to find any information on reindeer cheese, so I appreciate articles like yours immensely!

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    1. Dear Lisa, Thank you for reading and for your comment. I will keep writing. And you are right, there is so little information about reindeer cheese. The tradition has all but gone extinct and I wish more people know about it. It also seems a bit wild I had to go all the way to Lapland to find answers !

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