A culture
— of  culture

British-American writer Henry James  once wrote “It takes an endless amount  of history to make even a little tradition”.  We have many food traditions in Norway  that can prove this to be true.  The small team of nerdy dairy  enthusiast at Rørosmeieriet are working  hard to preserve and take care of one of  these treasures as they balance the fine  line between tradition and innovation.  From ancient knowledge, maybe a bit  of luck and skillful handcraft, a strange  milky brew from the past is giving us  vital health and connection to our roots. 

Treasures in local symbiosis 

A lot has happened concerning the awareness of eating a more locally sourced diet during the past decade. Knowing the historical and geographical roots of our food and eating more healthy and sustainable, is becoming more important to us as we make our choices at the supermarket. However, like all things growing in popularity we sometimes get blinded by the fad and forget the deeper meaning behind the reason why it came about in the first place. Clever marketing strategies have taken advantage of the trend and has made some of us blindly eat whatever is labelled as a local product, not really paying attention to content and quality. In a health perspective a food item isn’t healthier just because it has my home town on its label. The local food movement did not arise as yet another reason to boost our self-identity, nationalism or local patriotism. If McDonalds started baking some of their hamburger buns in my home town, I still wouldn’t consider eating their food and I’m sure many local food enthusiasts would agree with me. Sure, the greater environmental impact of having less transportation is already something to consider as you make your choices, but let’s look deeper at the health aspect.  

There has been a growing awareness on how eating local produce in a deeper sense has to do with our understanding of how our internal natural environment inside our bodies lives in constant symbiosis with our outer natural environment. Our bodies are in constant dialogue with the natural world; its seasons, the change of the light and what food comes out of our surrounding forests and fields. In the deepest sense, eating a locally sourced diet is about trusting that nature offers us what we need to thrive. To do this we often need to look to what food traditions are found in our community and they ways people survived before restaurants, fridges and freezers, back when nature was the only supermarket. in this reemerging of the awareness of local and traditional foods, it is like an almost forgotten global food group has gotten its renaissance.

The interest in fermented, soured and preserved foods has boomed, and many say that with it, health is flourishing, as such food often have strong probiotic properties and seem to play an important part in our inner bacterial ecosystem. Out of a care for both local food traditions, health, knowledge of ecology and the natural environment and with passion for high quality food, the small dairy Rørosmeieriet grew up with one foot firmly planted in old local traditions and another foot stepping into an exciting innovative future armed with a strange brew of lacto-fermented deliciousness.   

It was back in 1995 in the small village of Tolga, half an hour drive from the mining town of Røros that this meeting between tradition and innovation started. 20 people from the region were selected to bring back childhood memories and dairy expertise in order to contribute to an expert panel to taste what was to become the mother of a true culture – a mother culture that would make the traditional soured milk “Tjukkmjølk” a national food treasure. 

And for this they needed the perfect starter culture. The initiative had come from what would later become Rørosmeieriet and the local organic farm association. They both had, opposed to local popular belief, faith in making this old and very peculiar, poor-man’s food tradition into a national must-have. It was the local associations of women farmers and houseworkers that collected the different cultures they were to taste, sniff and discuss. They were found spread out in farms and homes in the region, some having been kept for generations. The goal was to find one that stood out, that could help preserve and develop a more than 150-year-old culinary tradition in Norway with roots probably stretching back to the Viking age. “Well, some locals up here in the Nord-Østerdal valley might buy it, but I doubt anyone else will”, was one of the test panel participants verdict. Tjukkmjølk, or thickened milk, was some years later the first product in Norway to gain certification for Protected Geographical Indication along with products such as parma ham, cognac and champagne. 

Back to the roots 

The tradition of drinking sweet milk like we do in Norway, is rather peculiar in an international and historical context. However, different ways of preserving and fermenting milk have long and exciting roots all over the world. Tjukkmjølk is maybe one of the most exciting such products we have in our Northern land. 

Check out the gorgeous little blue flower on this page. It’s called tetteplante – “pinguicula vulgaris” is its maiden name, known as Butterwort in English. The cute and innocent looking plant likes to grow its roots in wet soil, often poor in nutrients. But innocent as it looks, this plant actually makes sure it gets what it needs by eating bugs. Its sticky leaves grab a hold of insects, and then produce an enzyme that helps it decompose and take advantage of the nutrients from the bug. And somewhere, at some point in time, this plant was put in fresh farm milk and after some days the milk changed in all sorts of ways. The tradition says that to make Tjukkmjølk you put some of the slimy leaves from the plant at the bottom of a wooden bowl and then poured fresh milk over and let it sit for a few days. However, there is much dispute around whether this is actually the way the culture is made, how to do it and whether the plant has anything to do with the final product at all. Some say they still do, but many have also tried without being able to make a newborn Tjukkmjølk culture. 

If you spend some time around Røros and talk to old farmers that grew up with this tradition, you meet little opposition to the idea. Of course, we had Tjukkmjølk. My mom always had a batch brewing on the kitchen counter”, they all seem to say. But if you poke a bit further and ask if they ever went looking for the humble, little blue plant with their families or if they ever actually saw their mom or grandmother put the plant in the milk, most of them would say Nooo. We already had the culture. And if we ran out we just went to the neighbour farm and got a batch from their culture and kept brewing on that one In some villages they used to take turns guarding and preserving a good culture, this the locals refers to as tette”. If you had the culture, the bacterial foundation for Tjukkmjølk was already present, you only had to add the milk and let it sit. There was no need to go looking for the plant.  

But still there are people in the Røros region that keep the tradition alive and manage to start their own culture from the plant. One example is a local kindergarten in Røros that have created a tradition around making their own culture and Tjukkmjølk with the children every year. Rørosmeieriet themselves have tried too, and even though they managed to make a new culture it had many weaknesses and did not make a reliable foundation for a stable production like the one they have been using.

To dig deeper into this some passionate dairy researchers at The Norwegian University of Life sciences (NMBU) at Ås have concluded that the traces of the Butterwort plant indeed is to be found in the delicious sour milk product now found at the supermarket. Judith Narvhus at Ås is one of the few dairy nerds doing research on Tjukkmjølk and its health benefits. Her research has confirmed just what the chat with the local Røros-farmers suggests. The traditional craft of creating a vital starter (the tette”) from scratch by using the plant and fresh milk have slowly disappeared over the generations. Her research also confirmed how difficult it can be to be able to activate a new culture. Still there needs to be more research made on Tjukkmjølk and how this very unique bacterial culture affects our health. However, there must be something exciting lurking around this milky brew. At Rørosmeieriet they have lost track of how many times customers have reported that they not only love the taste, but that their bodies react differently to this mysterious milk. Even people that experience intolerance to milk products claim that Tjukkmjølk is the only milk they can drink. However, anecdotes and personal experience, no matter how repetitive, counts for nothing in the world of marketing, and the people at Rørosmeieriet would love to have more research done. 

It’s alive!    

Some things are easy to prove, though. For instance, Tjukkmølk lasts much longer than other sour milk products. This is seen in many old food traditions that grew out of the symbiotic relationship between man and land, they just “make sense” both practically and nutritionally. The fact that Tjukkmjølk has such great abilities for natural preservation, was maybe a big reason why it was such a big part of people’s eating habits in the Røros region long before there was milk in cartons. Røros is known for its long and rough winters along with its mining history. Many workers were commuting weekly, often by cross country skiing for miles, up to the mountains working deep underground, only to return home to family and farm in the weekends. The food they brought had to be both easily preserved and dense in nutrients for the hard work they were doing. Tjukkmølk became their most treasured food item. 

“Our rural ancestors, with little blest, Patient of labour when the end was rest,  Indulged the day that housed their annual grain, With feasts, and off’rings,  and a thankful strain” Alexander Pope 

The Tjukkmjølk you buy from the stores today have an expiry date that is double that of any other cultured or soured milk product. if kept in fairly decent conditions, the milk can even last much longer than that. Often what we consider to be “alive” food that have a long shelf life, are foods that have been heavily processed, from standardized production that uses lots of preservatives. Tjukkmjølk is quite the opposite. In contrast to many of the standardized laboratory produced bacteria you find in most of the dairy products in grocery stores today, Tjukkmjølk is a natural bacteria culture. Let’s halt there for a second. It’s easy to disregard that last sentence as something arbitrary: “Natural bacterial culture”. Taste it for a moment. Do you know that most sour and fermented dairy products you buy in the store today, even many that are considered healthy, like yoghurt, stems from standardized cultures that are raised in laboratories that dairy companies from all over the world order from a very few multinational laboratories?  

When I say that Tjukkmjølk comes from an “alive or natural” culture I’m telling you that what you eventually pour into your smoothie, comes from the unimaginable, complex interaction between a specimen of a wild “pinguicula vulgaris” – Tetteplante -  that once was picked maybe some late summer evening in the forests around Røros. I can’t help being fascinated by how many factors that are involved in a long and organic process like that. What amount of nutrients was in the plants soil that summer? Surely traces of that is now in my breakfast? How much sunlight and rain did they get that year? And that fresh farm milk that someone once poured over it, also adds to the intricate bacterial mystery that is now adding to the aliveness in my gut. What had the cow been eating that summer and who milked her and started the culture?  

Back at the University of Life sciences at Ås, researcher Judith Narvhus and her students are digging deeper into the mystery of milk bacteria, trying to find scientific explanations of how this complex dance between micro and macro happens and how it affects us. While the interest in the importance of amino acids in our diet is growing around the world, Narvhus and her team find quite big amounts of the amino acid GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid) in Tjukkmjølk. GABA has been linked to relieve symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, inflammation and low blood pressure. At the same time nutritionists, doctors and chefs are raving about both the taste as well as the health benefits of alive foods such as Tjukkmjølk.

Some research now shows that maybe as much of 75% of our immunsystem lays in the gut, and that keeping a healthy gut flora is vital for our mental as well as our physical health. Maybe there is a reason why fermented foods are found as a natural part of the diet all over the world? Lacto-fermented foods are said to help against allergies, behavioural challenges and improve overall mental health and strengthen the immune system. Lacto-fermented foods and beverages do this by helping normalize the PH-level in the gut and creating a balanced production of stomach acids. This again increase the guts resistance to malicious bacteria that can create harm and imbalances.  

Like a good sourdough culture, the Tjukkmjølks culture tette” has personality. Lots of personality! And again, if you have a talk with the “experts” – the farmers around Røros that grew up with this peculiar milk – they definitely do not agree on how a perfect batch should taste like. when a small business like Rørosmeieriet was going to make this into a product people would actually buy (who wants to eat a product that starts with “thick” anyways?), they had to find a way to cope with the personality that comes with an alive culture, in order to offer a predictable product people would dare to buy. Trying to run a viable business selling a product that is truly alive, with lots of personality comes with its risks, something Rørosmeieriet had to learn the hard way in the early fall of 2016. 

The story of a national rescue mission – the battle of bacteria 

Just like good and bad bacteria are in a constant battle in our gut, they are a part of an everyday battle in any dairy. For the people at Rørosmeieriet, a new type of battle of bacteria was discovered starting with a hunch back in the summer of 2016. The most experienced diary nerds at Rørosmeieret began to have an eerie feeling of something just not being quite right with their beloved Tjukkmjølk culture.   

“If life was predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavourEleanor Roosevelt 

At first it just seemed a bit weak, then it became evident that this culture that had consistently been delivering for decades, was deteriorating. Rørosmeieriet had to stop their production of Tjukkmjølk and put all effort into trying to solve the mystery. Instead of keeping silent about their troubles, Rørosmeieriet decided to do the opposite, and reached out to the Norwegian people for help. “We just figured that since we are trying to not only keep a bacterial culture alive, but also a social culture, we should just do like they did in the old days”, says the “mayor of milk” at Rørosmeieret, Trond Lund. “If they struggled with their “tette” on one of the farms, they just reached out to the neighbour. Then we just did the same.”

So, while the employees at Rørosmeieriet where working day and night to find the source of the problem, newspapers and news stations across the country was inviting the Norwegian people along on a national rescue mission to help keeping the culture alive. The dairy asked people who had their own starter culture or Tjukkmølk from Røros older than the date when the problem had started, to share it with them. The goal was to find a healthy culture with which they could restart the production. The response was overwhelming. Over 300 people contacted the small company that had to put all other sides of their business on hold in order to respond to the people’s love for Tjukkmjølk. Some even showed up at the door step with older cultures they had found at home or left in their cabin, and cartons of Tjukkmjølk was transported over the mountains with taxi.

Back at the University of Life sciences they woke up a 30-year-old culture from slumber. A reserve batch from the original culture from the test panel in 1995 that had been safely kept in another location, was also eventually brought “home”. “The whole process sparked so many valuable discussions for us and now that it is over and the production is back, we know this has just further strengthened our expertise and experience as well as feeling a deeper respect for the job we are doing working with this alive and interesting tradition,” says Trond Lund at Rørosmeieret. He continues: “I don’t like comparing our culture to a baby, but it is always the image that comes to mind”, he says. “You never know what particular needs a child has when it arrives. You know they all need rest, to be fed, a comfortable temperature and care etc. But they don’t come with a manual that says how much rest and to what times, how much food and when and under what temperatures it thrives.

The same applies to the Tjukkmjølk culture. It’s alive and has many needs. In that sense the people at Rørosmeieriet are the parents of this culture. Our real craft and wisdom is how to care for this particular culture, to know exactly under what conditions it thrives and just like anything else alive, it is sensitive to all the ways in which we affect it. this knowledge only comes through time, experience and care. Hence, our work is not only based on scientific knowledge, but sometimes just as much guided by experience and a gut feeling. This is what makes our job and this food treasure exciting and worth protecting.” It is somewhat romantic to think about that a culture was rescued by culture, that the Norwegian people were invited in to help save a tradition that belongs to them.

I’m sure Rørosmeieriet in many ways would have loved to be saved from all the worry, extralong hours and millions of kroners lost on their biggest crisis this far. Lifting the gaze and hearing the echo of Henry James words “It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition”, its seems that what looked like a crisis in the bigger scheme of things has only strengthened an old, mysterious food culture that extends its pinguicula vulgaris roots far into our Norwegian soil, through our gut and into the future. 

This is an article from Hauste Magazine. 

Words: Berit Indset.

Photographs: Nina Sahraoui, Rørosmeieriet, Alexander Benjaminsen, Kristin Vigander.