Finnvollen mountain farm

by admin on 17/08/2011

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Slow Food Telemark arranged a tour to Finnvollen, a mountain farm west of Tuddal with a view to the mountain Gaustatoppen on Saturday 13 August. After most of the participants had arrived around noon, we sat down around a long table where the farmer Bent Nilsen started talking about daily life at their mountain farm in addition to bring us foods and drinks made by him and his family..

After having brought us flat bread, butter, prim (a dairy product made by boiling whey) and knaost (a cheese made at the farm) besides coffee and tea, we got an introduction to the Nilsen family’s stay at Finnvollen. They have their own farm in Sande, but due to house building they “lost” half of their property. Formerly, they let their domestic animals graze wherever they wanted and they needed only to store winter fodder at the farm, but with only half their property intact, they needed to provide fodder for them all year.Then, they had the idea of buying a mountain farm and after some time they bought Finnvollen, a farm which had been abandoned in 1991. When they arrived in summer 2007, the property was partly overgrown and the buildings were in bad repair. Conditions were in other words primitive when they arrived, but now they have a building where the cows can be milked together with a cheesemaking room and a wood-fired hot water tank. The water is extracted from a well located 80 metres below ground and is suitable for cheesemaking. Electrical power for running the water pump and lightbulbs is generated by a diesel-powered generator. Since it isn’t possible to make cheese in low temperatures, they are using a heat exchanger being heated by propane gas in order to keep the cheesemaking going on cold days.  Even under these primitive conditions, they are able to make dairy products of prime quality.

Our common lunch in the outdoors was a delicious experience whee we also got to taste their home-made ham from their own pigs together with salami. The butter, which was more yellow than “ordinary” butter, was so tasteful that we, strictly speaking, didn’t need to cover the flat bread with anything else. We were told that the strong sunlight at high altitudes with long days leads to that the photosynthesis is very active leading again to a high production of beta-carotene, a strongly coloured red-orange pigment abundant in plants and fruits. The high level of beta-carotene gives a more yellow milk and softer butter with a shorter shelf life, the latter meaning that the dairy products from Finnvollen can only be bought from the producer at Finnvollen and some outdoor markets.

There are about 10 cows at the farm and most of them are made up of rather rare races like Nordland and Trønder cows, rather hardy animals who only go home in order to be milked. The calves have a pyramid-shaped wooden building in which they can stay in case of bad weather. The 4 pigs live partly in a horse truck and partly within an enclosure where they can do as they please and really have a good time in the mud. They also have two workhorses, a pony and a golden retriever.

The pigs are fed whey, that is the liquid which remains after about 10% of the milk has been turned to cheese. Bent Nilsen lets the pigs reach a weight of 140 kilogrammes before he slaughters them at their farm in Sande, meaning that the pigs are relaxed until the end and that the meat is of supreme quality. I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that man and animals live in harmony at this farm.

The cheese called knaost is “related” to another cheese called pultost and the makings of both types of cheese naturallly resemble each other.In both cases, cow’s milk is separated into cream and skimmed milk. The latter is heated to 72°C in order to finish off some of the naturally occurring bacteria in the milk before lowering the temperature to 30°C. Then, it is soured down to a pH value of 4.3 by adding a freeze-dried culture. The pH value is also a characteristic of the safety of the milk, meaning that it may have been infected by dangerous bacteria and unsuitable for cheesemaking if the pH is too high. However, as long as the pH value is okay, the milk is heated to a little above 40°C and constantly stirred. After some time, it will be possible to separate cheese mass while the remaining liquid is called whey. The cheese mass is put in a container where the whey is allowed to drip away. The cheese mass will start fermenting all by itself and in order to prevent the temperature from exceeding 42°C at which the fermentation ceases, the cheese maker has to turn around the cheese mass twice daily. Finally, the cheese mass is heated such that the cheese “grains” melt and and a homogeneous mass results. After having cooled the cheese down to room temperature, the cheese is ready to be served.

Bent Nilsen told us that the process described above was far from easy and the first three summers were spent with trial and error, letting the dairy products be fed to the pigs. Besides, he studied traditional food making at a college in Rauland in Telemark in order to get professional help and to do experiments to find a reliable production process.

After having been shown around and got delicious food, it was time to go home. However, all the participants bought a fair share of dairy products before leaving, in fact it was the least we could do after such a pleasant and interesting stay.

My respect for the women who worked all summer in mountain farms has definitely not decreased after this visit. They had to make do without running water, electrical power and hardly any possibility for cooling their products. In those days, people and animals wandered from the valleys to the mountains, while the Nilsen family freight their animals by car at summer solstice up to the mountain farm and back again in the middle of September.

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