Danes like dairy. A puzzling variety of dairy it seems. Or so I gather from the exclamation of two expat friends when asked about Danish peculiarities: “The DAIRY PRODUCTS! Why are there so many of them?!”
And yes. We Danes like our Dairy products. From our milks to our cheeses, our butter to our “cultured milk products”. In this we do not vary greatly from other agricultural cultures. But we do have products, which are not cross-culturally mainstream.
Thus this short guide to the dairy section of the Danish supermarkets: From the different types of what is essentially yoghurt to the colour scheme, which has helped Danes identify their milk since the 1960s.
To each his own – sweet, light, mini or skimmed?
Milk has been an invaluable part of survival in what became Denmark since the Neolithic age. When previously nomadic peoples settled down and began living off the land – in approximately 3700 B.C. – milk became one of the basic foodstuffs and it is still very much a part of the Danish identity.
Today you may find these choices in most supermarkets:
Literally “sweet milk”. For many years the only type of milk with a fat content of 3.5%
“Light milk”. Introduced in 1973 with a reduced fat content of 1.5%. From the early 80s onwards, this was the most popular milk until the arrival of the “mini milk”.
Introduced in 2001 as part of the low-fat trend of the new millennium. Sports a 0,5% fat content but similar in taste to Letmælk (NB! … this can be contested and spark serious discussions).
With only 0,1% fat and for many years thought only of use for feeding animals.
All of these come – naturally – as both “normal” and organic.
How to navigate in the supermarket … the secret is in the colour
In 1964 a colour scheme for the packaging of milk products was decided upon to help the consumers identify, which milk was at hand: Dark blue for Sødmælk. Red for whipping cream. Green for buttermilk (kærnemælk). Brown for chocolate milk.
As products with reduced fat were introduced, the colours were adjusted within this colour scheme. The paler the colour, the lower the fat content: Letmælk = light blue. Minimælk = pale blue. Skummetmælk = grey. Reduced cream = orange.
Today the dairy colour scheme is as much a part of Danish culture as the Little Mermaid. A rogue dairy did once try to switch things up by introducing Sødmælk in a red carton, but the experiment ended as unhappy consumers complained at having grabbed the wrong product.
The yoghurts – or the wonderful world of Danish “cultured milk products”
It is when looking at the “thicker”, breakfast-oriented milk products akin to yoghurt that the “Danish way” starts flying solo. For next to the “regular” yoghurts you find a range of Danish dairy particularities, which are in effect variations over the theme “lactic acid bacteria”:
The people of Caucasus have their kefir. The Icelanders their skyr. The Danes have their A38, their Tykmælk and their Ymer. All may be eaten alone, with müsli or with the all time Danish favourite “rugdrys” – crumpled ryebread mixed with brown sugar. All may seem to taste somewhat the same, but most people tend to have their favourite.
A-38 is the all-time bestseller among the cultured milk products.
Tykmælk or literally “thick milk” is the richest and oldest of the products, having been on the market since about 1880.
Ymer is named after the character Ymir from Norse Mythology who was present at the creation of the world – and it is higher in protein than Tykmælk and A38.
Ylette is the “skinny” version of Ymer. Same protein, less fat.
Milk by subscription and a little sunshine on a spoon
To sum it up – Danes still are very much a dairy nation and the Danish Health Authority recommends an intake of half a litre of milk a day. For many years now, it has even been possible to subscribe to milk in the Danish schools, so that your child receives .25 litres of milk with their lunch every day.
And then, of course, the reliance on dairy has resulted in some quite delightful products. A personal favourite is the “little sunshine on a spoon”: The typical Danish summer dessert Koldskål (literally “cold bowl”) – made with Tykmælk, buttermilk, eggs and vanilla. It is a cool and sweet way to finish a summer meal and may in case of summer inertia even substitute the evening meal entirely. That it is eaten with small biscuits that are only slightly less sugary than the vanilla cookies Danes eat for Christmas makes it no lesser a delight.
And with this, there is nothing more to say than – go forth and conquer the Danish dairy section.