Success smells doubly sweet for Ostegården’s Jørn Hafslund. His gouda-style Fanaost not only topped the 2018 World Cheese Awards but the win brought son Magnus back into the family dairy, securing it for the next generation, as the pair told ELYSE GLICKMAN
From humble origins to world-beater, the story of Fanaost could read like a crowd-pleasing sports movie if its subject were an athlete rather than an exquisite gouda-style cheese.
Farmer Jørn Hafslund never planned for his dairy farm – at Ostegården, 22 kilometers south of Bergen – to become known for artisanal cheese production. When he started cheese-making a dozen years ago it was just a means of using up excess milk.
But many of the right conditions were in place for Fanaost to emerge as champion at the 2018 World Cheese Awards, and for the farm to develop unique expressions of camembert and brie too, plus condiments such as chilli and pear jam.
To begin with, Hafslund notes that his team of 12 cows benefit from the perfect – if hardly level – playing field. They dine on 14 different grasses growing near a rocky, wooded outcrop jutting out into the pure waters of a local fjord.
The resulting milk matures into Fanaost, a mild, round and semi-solid cheese, reminiscent of gouda, that set itself apart with the World Cheese Awards judges in Bergen last year. Its rich, savoury flavours “really deliver a sense of place,” they noted.
“We’re very proud of the environment around the farm,” says Hafslund, but he also credits the Norwegian Red cow breed. Resistant to illness and with a good disposition, it was developed in the 1930s by crossing several breeds including Norwegian Red-and-White, Red Trondheim and the Red Polled Østland.
“I believe this makes this milk we use very special,” says Hafslund.
Fanaost competed on its own against producers from major-league nations such as France, Holland, Italy, England and Spain at the 2018 World Cheese Awards in Bergen.
The pride of Ostegården Farm was in very good company, given that there were other Norwegian producers with impressive WCA showings, including Stordalen Gardsbruk (with its SuperGold-winning brown cheese) and Tingvollost, which won the World Champion title with its blue, Kraftkar, in 2016.
However, with over 3,400 entries, the ascendance of Fanoast was a breath-taking and unforgettable feat, made all the more poignant with the announcement taking place on a stage that was international yet 22 kilometers from the farm.
“I was there ahead of the announcement of the Super Jury,” recalls Hafslund. “We were at the WCA to sell our cheese to cheese lovers, retailers and other attendees. I realised early on that the competition was so incredibly fierce.” With over 3,000 cheeses competing, any kind of award would have felt like a victory. “My wife, meanwhile, went home before the results were announced because we never thought there was a chance for us to win anything.”
The moment when judges declared Fanaost the winner was understandably overwhelming for Hafslund, as would be the attention his farm and his cheeses would receive in the days and weeks after the announcement.
Although son Magnus, 26, was in the military and at NATO training in Trondheim at the time of the competition, the life-changing word on Fanoast’s victory hit him just as powerfully.
“I first read the news on Verdens Gang, Norway’s largest newspaper, and then received phone messages from my friends,” Magnus says.
“Up until that moment, I wasn’t quite sure if I was going to be a cheese-farmer at all.
“However, the realisation struck like lightning from clear skies, that I was going to join the family farm. It has ended up being an incredibly positive experience for me.
“It will be exciting to eventually develop my own cheeses. I haven’t quite figured out what they’re going to be, but I’ve definitely started to think about it.”
Life has changed for the family on some levels but not all. There’s a firm commitment to keeping the farm running like clockwork and not losing sight of the domestic market before getting excited about export opportunities.
While major award-winners switch focus to expanding their range of products, the family is more dedicated to maintaining and improving the Fanaost, brie and camembert variants they spent time developing prior to the win.
Hafslund adds that once consistent production of the three existing cheeses is ensured, they will be in a place to consider product development again.
“Everyday life is characterized by the same routines,” he says with humility. “We still get up at 5.50 in the morning to milk our cows. For me personally, the big change is probably just that there is more of everything. More cheese, more email, more milk, more production, and more staff.”
Magnus concurs, saying: “There is a lot in everyday life that is routine, as I now have a great deal of responsibility for the farm’s business administration and keeping track of orders here and abroad.
“But even with the focus day-to-day operations require, some things are very different. For example, a Japanese television crew visited our farm, and we realised we would be appearing on a children’s educational programme that would be seen by 11 million viewers.”
Rather than allow success to spoil him, the farm’s patriarch channels the positive energy into finding a greater audience for Fanaost, albeit in a disciplined, grass-roots kind of way.
While the popularity of Fanaost within Norway has led to bigger domestic sales, it took last year’s win to get the family thinking about the ways to sell in other countries.
Even with that, however, Hafslund says he wants to take things slowly, ensuring they can keep up with demand while maintaining quality.
Continued affiliation with the Norwegian Farm Cheese Association and its network of artisan producers will, he adds, help Ostegården grow business on its own terms as well as enabling it to support the efforts of other small Norwegian cheese makers.
He appreciates the ongoing opportunity to brainstorm with other producers whenever a technical or business challenge arises. In effect, he sees himself and Ostegården as part of Team Norway when it comes to the long game.
“It’s a change for us to know demand is so good,” Hafslund continues, pointing to the fact that Fanaost sold out in UK food shops in the afterglow of the win. “This means we can scale up and think bigger in appropriate ways without taking too much of a risk.
“It’s like I’ve become a celebrity in the cheese universe, and if I travel around to sell my cheese, the stores know who I am.
“We can’t afford to get sloppy, and there is a completely different requirement now to keep the quality of cheese as high as the one that won.
“But we don’t have performance anxiety – we’re just very proud.”
This story originally appeared in 2019-20 issue of Good Cheese, you can find the digital edition here.