Standing behind a high-security fence, under the blinding white Swedish sun, staring across the fields of varaslatten, I hear what sounds like the rumble of tanks. A cloud of red dust chokes towards me. The wire sings in the breeze, like an alarm. The birds fall silent.
It's not a tank. This isn't 1942. I am not the fire-eyed maid of smoky war: it's a tractor. And so I turn and walk through a green metal door into the cafe behind me. It's time to eat some cheese.
You see, Sivan's Osthandel, an hour outside Gothenburg, is more than just a cafe. It's more than a cheese shop, chocolatier, and crispbread factory: it sits on a former secret military base, used by the Swedish air force to store jet fuel in a cave under a mountain during World War Two.
Until a few years ago, that is, when some farmers bought the land off the Swedish armed forces, including the 2,500-metre-square "oil mountain." No address, no sign, no mark on the map—just sheds and tarmac and that granite hole full of fuel. In fact, the whole place remained largely untouched until 2010, when Sivan and her daughter Sofia bought the whole lot to give a new home to their family cheese empire.
It is quite a strange experience to be walking through a large, unmarked metal door, surrounded by old military stop signs, corrugated tin roofs, and metres of woven wire fence, only to find yourself standing in front of a shelf of artisan crisp breads. There may be a sheer rock face, holding a secret, locked lair of petrol-smelling caves and untold military secrets just metres away, but in here, it's all locally produced butter, hand-finished chocolates, and lovingly aged cheeses.
I look through the window of Sivan's Osthandel to its little cafe area outside. There's a blackboard with the word "slut" chalked out in large letters and underlined twice. This, I check via Google, means "final." Just as well.
Sofia, Sivan's daughter, is standing beside me in a brilliant white apron, wearing some super-Scandinavian wire-rimmed glasses. She looks like a feminine mix of Eddie the Eagle and The Swedish Chef from The Muppets. Behind her, under the pale white light, sits an enormous cabinet of cheeses, aged right here on site.
"My grandmother used to make her own cheese," she explains, her vowels as light as schnapps. "She bought a bicycle and a wagon, and would cycle the ten kilometres to the train to sell her cheese in town. She did that for 51 years—she died in her 90s, when my mother took over."
Forget the aluminium roof, the concrete floor, and whiff of World War Two dogfights—this is a matriarchal enterprise built on milk, hard work, and taste.
Sofia's mother, the eponymous Sivan—who, like her sisters, was named after a breed of cow—became locally famous for collecting and ageing the best cheeses made in the region. She'd go from farm to farm, buying up wheels of hard, nutty cheese, or soft Swedish speciality cheeses, and then put them down to age in her garage, until they'd reached their absolute peak of flavour, maturity, and texture. It was, quite literally, a cottage empire.
But one that needed to expand. So, 16 years ago, while Sofia was still working in Gothenburg as a pastry chef, this mother-and-daughter team decided to buy the World War Two oil mountain and move in. (I mean sure, why not?) They turned the old green metal building into a kitchen, where Sofia started baking her own crisp bread using wheat, milk, and rapeseed oil—all grown on their doorstep and started producing on a larger scale the chocolates that she'd previously made, by hand, at night, with nothing more than a fork, a bow, and a small cooking pan in her mother's kitchen.
As she tells us this story, Sofia is stacking a selection of cheeses onto a huge wooden board in the middle of our table. There's a light, crumbling cheese like a highly superior Wensleydale, a blue cheese that makes my salt-starved soul sing, a brie-like round of soft yellow cheese, and several traditional hard cheeses a bit like Jarlsberg without the holes.
All this is served with Sofia's hand-made crisp breads (or knåcke to their friends), made with potato, sesame, rosemary, pumpkin seed, and something called harligt which turns out to be, apparently, Swedish for "loveliness." Quite right. There is also a rhubarb chutney and a syrup made from infused pine needles. After three days of fika ("coffee and cake," for those of you who don't speak fluent snack), it is a joy to be getting my mouth around some salty, Swedish dairy.
"There is a lot of dairy in Sweden," says Sofia, her scrubbed pink hands fluttering across the table like birds. "It's like breweries in Britain."
And there is a lot to making a great cheese, she explains. There then ensues at least five minutes solid chat about cow shit, silage, flavour contamination, and the risk of a dung-smeared udder. I'll spare you the details. Suffice to say, these women know a lot about farming, about milk, about the ageing process, about happy customers and—most importantly—about cheese. Which is just as well, as they've got 30 tonnes of the stuff out the back.
Walking out of the cool, khaki-coloured air base, I am once again hit by the smell of rapeseed oil, the dazzling May-time light and the enormous sense of space. Behind me, between whispering pine trees is a door to the blocked-up secret cave full of, well, some secret Swedish air force stuff. God knows what. I feel like the parents in the Pied Piper of Hamlin staring at the mountain that just swallowed their children. What happened in there? Is it still flammable? Will it be like The Goonies? Are there skeletons? Will I meet the cast of M*A*S*H? Is this where Sivan's keeps the special cheese?
But before I have the chance to go full Rambo and break in, Sofia comes out to hug me goodbye. She's fully booked for the next two months, which means a lot of baking, cooking, slicing, and melting to do.
For, as Shakespeare never actually said, When the hurly-burly's done, When the battle's lost and won, It's time to start the dairy fun. Skål!