Something Rotten

Photograph by Horacio Salinas.

A brief primer to the cryptic world of Scandinavia’s most pedestrian cheeses. Or: When the Danes and Greeks went off to war

While often seen as an innovator—especially in regards to swank furniture, acceptable pornography and plastic building blocks—Denmark can also be accused of rampant imitation, and nowhere more so than with its cheeses. While the Danes can claim just under a dozen variations that are sanctioned by their government, upon closer inspection it becomes apparent that these are, more often than not, renamed facsimiles of existing foreign fromages. In fact, of the 11 distinct cheeses of Denmark, only one qualifies as an original: Samsoe, which is actually a cousin twice removed from Switzerland’s Emmental.

In 1951, the European cheese industry gathered in Stresa, Italy, to determine the “use and appellations of origin and denominations of cheese,” and decided that Danish cheeses should have their own names, as opposed to being marketed as Danish generics. Take Havarti, one of the country’s more famous exports, which upon research reveals itself as a rebadged Tilsit cheese—originally hailing from the Emmental valley in Switzerland. Other examples are the Danish Blue, which is merely a knockoff Roquefort; the Mycella, a variation of Gorgonzola; the Molbo—twinned with Edam; and Fynbo and Maribo, which, separated at birth from their more famous sibling Gouda, have never quite caught up. Other variations are the result of small changes from the initial reproduction, such as Tybo—nothing more than a square Molbo; and Elbo, which is a loaf-shaped Samsoe.

Adding to all this confusion is the Feta cheese war between Denmark and Greece. The Danes took a decisive whacking in October 2005, when the European Court of Justice issued a long-awaited ruling (after some 18 years of feuding) declaring that only Feta made in Greece, and only from sheep and goat milk, can be called Feta. Denmark, the world’s second-largest producer of the cheese, was required to figure out a name for its product before the second anniversary of the ruling. The solution, to use prominent brand names, such as the popular Apetina variety. The Danes were not pleased. In an interview with U.S. National Public Radio’s Melissa Block, Hans Bender of the Danish Dairy Board was audibly enraged by the decision. “Feta has been inscribed in Danish legislation for more than 40 years. We’ve had rulings in Denmark on Feta. It has been considered a generic product… So this is—to put it in the American way—this is crap.” Bender continued, “Nobody knows from where the product comes… It’s a standard product not just in Greece, but also in the rest of the Balkans. It has for centuries been a commodity product in that whole area. So it does not come from Greece; that’s a hoax.” Hoax it might be, but like its other cheesy siblings, Denmark’s Feta will have to get used to its new name—yet another cover-up of the real deal.