“Just think of it as mocha-flavored cream cheese,” my friend urged as I stared doubtfully at the saturated, oily, brown blobs floating in my coffee. I’m no stranger to mocha cheesecake, so with her encouraging words I took my first bite of kaffeost and plunged into one of the world’s most curious coffee traditions.
Kaffeost, or “coffee cheese,” is a firm, flexible cheese that hails from Swedish Lapland – the arctic north of the country – and is most at home marinating in a steaming cup of java.
Hot coffee is something you’ll find a lot of in Sweden. The country has one of the highest rates of coffee consumption in the world, and the practice of fika – enjoying cozy coffee breaks, usually with a pastry – is a beloved ritual of everyday life. But kaffeost is unlike any other coffee break.
Kaffeost is a traditional food of the Sami. The Sami are the indigenous people of Sápmi, a region that extends across northern Scandinavia and Russia, and overlaps much of Swedish Lapland. Customarily made with reindeer milk (though cow’s milk is often substituted), kaffeost has a neutral taste and a smooth, slightly dry texture. It also has a high melting point and is baked to achieve a glossy, golden exterior before finding its way to many a coffee cup.
In Swedish Lapland, more often than not, that cup is a beautiful guksi, a hand-carved wooden mug made from a birch burl. Tradition dictates that the coffee is always boiled, never brewed. Ideally, it is prepared over an open air fire. And a few cubes of kaffeost are always a welcomed addition. Combining cheese and coffee sounds odd, but the two ingredients are a natural fit.
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The water of northern Sweden is pure and free from many trace minerals and, when consumed in large quantities by voracious coffee drinkers, it is rumored to cause sodium deficiencies. Consuming kaffeost helps solve this problem. Coffee also serves as the perfect rehydration fluid for dried kaffeost, a pragmatic and long-lasting staple for the semi-nomadic Sami. When served alongside smoked reindeer and kaffebrod, a sweetened bread, it’s an ideal blend of sharp, smooth, salty, sweet, and savory – and perfect for sharing.
Generosity is at the heart of Sami tradition and Lapland hospitality. At Eva Gunnare’s cozy dining room table in Jokkmokk, the welcome is nearly as warm as the coffee itself. Eva is a food creator, culture guide, mother of a Sami child, and the founder of Essense of Lapland. She offers tasting tours of Jokkmokk, courses in wild-herb gathering, and “flavor shows” with music, singing, cooking, and dining. Her diverse menu often includes marinated char with mountain sorrel sauce, birch breadsticks with a pine shoot dip, and plump, juicy cloudberries with ice cream.
While coffee and conversation cements many relationships, in Lapland there’s a special ritual that accompanies the process. As Eva describes, “In the northern part of Sweden and in the Sami culture, drinking coffee together is probably the most common and important way of sharing a moment. You are not properly welcomed in the house without drinking coffee. And if you refuse, that could be considered impolite and rude.”
Kaffeost is not a commonplace flavor or texture. In the cheese world it’s often compared to halloumi but, sitting at Eva’s table, I was reminded of Canadian cheese curds. Kaffeost squeaks when you bite it, just like cheese curds, and their mild flavors are similar. I didn’t taste any flavors of mocha cream cheese in my cup, like my friend insisted, but it was delicious, rich and peculiar all at once.
Eva describes kaffeost as a treat she “always eats with old or new friends – never alone.” Like coffee everywhere, kaffeost is best enjoyed with good company and in good cheer.
*This article was originally published in November 2017.