Filmjölk – The Swedish Yoghurt

In Sweden, many of us start the day with some yoghurt or fil for breakfast. The yoghurt and fil we eat nowadays is not the traditional homemade soured milk we ate before industrialization, but the products are closely related. Yoghurt as a product has only been produced in dairies in Sweden.

In the time before industrialization, many people owned one or two cows. The cow was a security in times of famine and hunger, as it could give milk even with a fodder that was not of the best quality. Very poor people could keep a goat, but that meant less milk. Goats were mainly kept for cheese production.

A woman with her cows in 1910.

In Sweden the cattle and the dairy production for the self-sufficient family was the work of the women. They were responsible for the care and the milking and also for the processing of the milk. This was especially the case in the North and West of the country, where they had a transhumance system; some of the women brought the cattle to a summer pasture chalet and stayed there for some months. The cattle grazed in the forest, followed by a woman or child. The other women processed the milk into different products that would last for a long time, often the whole winter, a period when the cows did not give any milk.

Common butterwort or steepgrass (Pinguicula vulgaris).The leaves are used to prepare the starter. The picture is copyright-free, from “Bilder ur Nordens Flora”, C. A. M. Lindman. (1917)

To drink unskimmed whole milk is a late phenomenon, connected with industrialisation. Traditionally whole milk was regarded as a raw material and used as a panacea, usually given to children, the old and the weak.

Butter was economically the most important product. The skimmed milk was used for making hard, stored cheese by adding rennet, a good way of long-time preserving the milk.

The milk could also be preserved by just letting it turn sour and coagulate. This was common in the Southern parts of Sweden. In the North a culture was always added, like a sourdough. Then the milk become tasty and could last for a very long period, if it was kept cool. This is called Filmjölk or långfil. Långfil has a viscid consistency, milder taste and a different bacteriological culture as a starter. It is the plant tätört, common butterwort or steepgrass (Pinguicula vulgaris) that you add to a cup of body-warmth milk and let rest for a number of days until the milk takes on the right viscid or ”long” consistency. Then you can add more milk, keep it at body temperature and in 1-2 days, you will get långmjölk/tätmjölk. When you store the långfil cold, it can last for many months. The same culture, or sourdough, could be used over and over again, and it was very seldom that the women had to start from the beginning with the tätört. You could always find a neighbour who could give you a starter.

Filbytta. Where the långfil was stored

Before the butter was churned, the cream was also soured with fil. It made the butter last longer and taste better. This is also the case with buttermilk.

Cheesemaking and boiling the whey into messmör, the brown cheese.

The whey that was left over after the cheesemaking was boiled until the water had evaporated, and only the milk sugar and minerals were left. This product is called messmör or mesost, typical of the North of Sweden.

Author: Åsa Holmgren, The Institute for Language and Folklore (Isof), Sweden.