"The greatest difference between Norwegian and Portuguese cheese production is the consumer. Passion and love for Norwegian cheeses is sadly absent," says Einar Alme.
"Small and far-seeing" is a network for small-scale cheese producers. Members of the network have travelled to countries known for their cheeses: France, Switzerland and Portugal. They have also had four meetings. During the network period, all participants have carried out a project within their own company, which is presented to the group at the last meeting. The network is part of Innovation Norway’s Network programme for the food industry. The networks are administered by Nofima Mat.
The manager of the association for producers of the Beira Baixa cheese in the Castelo Branco region in Portugal supports Alme’s statement. "There is no love without a kiss, and there is no meat without cheese," he says passionately when receiving the small delegation of Norwegian cheese producers on their field trip to Portugal.
The Norwegian cheese producers from Derinngården, Skånaliseter, Avdem, Bryn and dairy giant Tine have taken part in a network organised by Innovation Norway and Nofima Mat, assisted by the National Institute of Technology. The project has lasted for about two years. One of the purposes of the network is to visit and learn from cheese producers in other European countries. During the network period, the group has visited France, Switzerland and Portugal.
Norwegian cheese production is different from Portuguese cheese production in several ways. In Portugal, as in France, cheese is an ingrained part of the culture. Around 550 tonnes of traditional cheese with protected designations of origin (PDO) is produced annually in Portugal. This corresponds to 2.8% of the total cheese production in the country. Protected designation of origin is an important certification in many European countries, but it is not much used in Norway.
"Not much cheese is exported from Portugal, and very little is imported. The Portuguese love their own cheeses. Traditional cheeses are largely produced from sheep’s and goat’s milk. In Norway, cheese isn’t produced from sheep’s milk at all, while cow’s milk is the most used for cheese production," says Einar Alme.
Much in common
"However, Norwegian farmers have much more in common with farmers in other European countries than they are aware of," Alme continues. "They both have extensive experience with hard work achieving a profitable production and solving distribution matters. In addition, both countries struggle with a margin between production costs and sales costs that is too low. The grocery trade controls 90% of the market in both countries, and this makes it difficult to get the products out to the stores," summarises Einar Alme.
Norwegian cheese lovers’ association needed
The Norwegian producers also meet up with a guild or cheese lovers’ association of the Serra da Estrela cheese on their field trip. This association has its main seat in the mountain town of Seia in Portugal. The members dress in similar brown cloaks and hats. They have ties, pins and flags with the association’s logo. The purpose of the association is to plead the local cheese’s cause in all connections, and they use every possible opportunity to market it. This inspires the network participants to initiate similar commitment in Norway.
"We need ambassadors for the fantastic, tasty cheeses we have in Norway as well. Let’s play ball with cheese lovers among our consumers. What about starting up an association like ‘Friends of Norwegian cheese’?" says Alme, who promises to follow up on this idea on behalf of producers in Norway.
Einar Alme has led more than 50 field trips of varying duration outside Norway. Many Norwegian companies know him well and have profited from his knowledge, commitment and passion for Norwegian food production.
"I’m in the giving away money business," says Einar Alme with a twinkle in his eye about the important role that he, as a representative of Innovation Norway, has in relation to small-scale food producers. He speaks French and English fluently, and is an active and inspiring travel guide. The trips focus on work and there’s not much room for sightseeing or shopping. Five cheese producers in two different regions of Portugal were visited in the course of two days, from tiny producers to larger cheese factories.