An ancient discussion about terroir and taste

What gave the Thybo-cheese its extraordinary flavour?

This question was the main issue of a thrilling debate, more than 200 years ago, about a highly appreciated cheese from the region of Thy. It was a discussion about taste and terroir. And it is a discussion which brings attention to a still relevant and today all too silent question of terroir in today’s Denmark. Where is the debate about whether certain regions in Denmark have particular agricultural qualities?

With the splendid and thorough article Beyond ‘New’ Nordic, Nordic Food Lab opened a general discussion in Aortas first edition about moving our cuisine forward, beyond the ‘New’ Nordic. We will comment on this discussion later on – after a detour through history. Let us start this story by traveling back in time, to Thy in the northwestern part of Jutland in the end of the 18th century.

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An extraordinary cheese in the midst of changes

The 18th century was a time of massive changes in Danish agriculture. The old feudal organization underwent fundamental changes and Stavnsbåndet, a serfdom-like institution controlling small farmers, was abolished in 1788. In the midst of all these changes, a cheese-discussion took place.

In 1791, the agronomist Otto Lemvigh was awarded a silver medal. He received it for a very thorough and interesting little book he had written, discussing the reasons for the distinctive flavour of a cheese from Thy. The silver medal was awarded by The Royal Danish Society of Agriculture.

The text is 16 pages long, written in Gothic script, and divided into two main chapters. The first chapter describes in details how the Thybo-cheese was produced, while the second chapter discusses the reasons for the extraordinary flavour of this cheese. Similar production-methods were used elsewhere in the country, so what gave, according to Otto Lemvigh, the cheese from Thy its distinctive characteristics?

He presents a variety of usual explanations: Could it be the spices, saffron and carnation, often used for the cheese? No. The same spices are used elsewhere in the country, but with a different result. Could it be the typical large size of the cheese? Again, no. Even the smaller cheese from Thy have the same distinctive flavour and aroma.

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The cheese from Thy was produced at a particular time, in the end of June – just around Skt. Hans. But the season is not the reason either, he claims – elsewhere in the country cheese was also produced around this time.

One thing, though, has caught his attention: The soil. The soil of Thy contains incredible amounts of marlstone. It was common in this area, Lemvigh describes, to spread marlstone across the fields as a fertilizer. This affected the grass, which affected the milk. In combination with the season, fresh milk and hard work, the main reason for the distinctive taste of the cheese from Thy was the soil.

Iron and marlstone

‘The cheese of Thye-land is famous for its distinctive taste – both domestically and abroad… It should be aged at least a year’, another text from 1802 concludes. This text is written by the priest Knud Aagaard as a chapter of a book from that year about the region of Thy. He agrees to a certain extend with the explanation about the soil given by Lemvigh. Yet, marlstone can’t be the only explanation. The marlstone exists in other places of Denmark as well, he continues, and yet the cheese from Thy tastes different. It could instead be the combination of iron and marlstone in the soil, he suggests. Just as Lemvigh, Aagaard ends up comparing the cheese of Thy to the cheese of Mors, a neighbor island. The taste is very similar here – and so is the soil.

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A missing discussion about terroir

Unfortunately, we cannot taste the Thybo-cheese, or any cheese of the 18th century, today. So how is this discussion in anyway relevant now – 200 years later in 21st century Denmark?

The discussion brings awareness to several issues. It enlightens the fact that discussions about taste changes over time. This might seem self-evident, but it needs to be underlined, if we are to reflect on the current state of our cuisine. A more concrete historical awareness, as with the story of the cheese from Thy, can help us realize that there are relevant missing elements in today’s discussions about food culture. The story from Thy makes us aware that at some point in history questions of regional qualities played a key role in discussions of taste.

A historical awareness is not only to learn from the last decade, as the guys of Nordic Food Lab relevantly concluded in their splendid opening-article, but also to use history as a parameter in general to both clarify and at the same time constantly challenge our current standpoint when moving forward.

Moving forward with history

With the cheese from Thy, we are looking through a window to an ancient discussion about terroir and taste. Doesn’t exactly this discussion about terroir, in a more fundamental and concrete way, seem like a lacking element in today’s discussions on how to move our cuisine forward? Where is our discussion about whether certain regions in Denmark have particular agricultural qualities? And shouldn’t this discussion be a part of a more general discussion on how to move our agriculture forward – focusing on quality? Concrete stories like the ancient cheese from Thy gives a necessary ballast when digging into what regional gastronomy means.

Peter Nøhr & Asmus Jensen

Peter Nøhr & Asmus Jensen

Head Chef & Historian, KOST

Democratic gastronomy.

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