Norway’s national brown cheese (brunost) harks back to its days as a poor country, with a focus on preserving fish and meats in salt, lots of potatoes and simple sauces. Brunost is primarily produced and consumed in Norway. It is regarded as one of the country’s most iconic foodstuffs, and is considered an important part of Norwegian gastronomical and cultural identity and heritage. But what is Norwegian brown cheese?
Norwegian brown cheese got international attention in 2013 when a consignment of 27 tons was spread in a road tunnel beyond the county of Nordland and caught fire. Kjell Bjorn Vinje of the public roads’ administration said: “I didn’t know that brown cheese burns so well.”
However, one of Norway’s best loved culinary treats is also one of its simplest. It is often used to just refer to the Gudbrandsdalsost (Gudbrandsdal Cheese), which is the most popular variety. The cheese is tan-colored with a distinctive caramel flavor.
But what is Norwegian brown cheese and how is it eaten?
The creation of the modern, firm, fatty brunost is commonly attributed to the milkmaid Anne Hov from the rural valley of Gudbrandsdalen. In the second half of the 1800s, Gudbrandsdalen was suffering economically due to falling profits from grain and butter sales.
While working at the Valseter mountain farm near Gålå in 1863, Anne Hov (sometimes named Anne Haav) came up with the idea of adding cream to the whey when boiling, and to boil it down in an iron pot until the fluid content was reduced to less than 80 percent, creating a firmer, fattier, more cheese-like product. She originally called it feitost (“fat cheese”). The name later changed into fløtemysost (“cream whey cheese”). The product immediately caught on, and was soon commonly produced and consumed in the area. This variety is currently the second most popular type in Norway. (Wikipedia)
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When Hov married and moved to Rusthågå farm in Nord-Fron, she started larger-scale production and invented a variety where she added goat’s milk to the mix for a more pronounced taste. The local trader Ole Kongsli liked it so much he thought there might be a market for the product in the capital, Oslo. The cheese is set into small blocks most commonly of around 500 grams, wrapped and can be eaten and enjoyed immediately.
In 1933, aged 87, Hov received the King’s Medal of Merit (Kongens fortjenstmedalje) for her contributions to Norwegian cuisine and economy. In modern times, most brown cheese is mainly produced by the national dairy TINE, although many regional variations exist. Every Norwegian seems to have a favorite. TINE market a total of 13 varieties while the second-largest is Norwegian dairy company Synnøve Finden, market two varieties of brunost. There are also a number of smaller, artisanal producers, mainly in Norway and in the US.
Related: Norwegian Ways
The texture is firm, but slightly softer than Gouda cheese, for example, and lends itself well to cutting and shaping. It does not crumble like hard cheeses. It’s fair to say brunost hasn’t a huge fanbase outside Norway and it can be a challenge to non-Norwegians.
The most common way to serve brunost is by using the unique cheese slicer, invented by the Norwegian carpenter Thor Bjørklund in 1925. This item is an integral part of any Norwegian kitchen. You slice off a slither from the block and can eat it atop toast, on a crispbread topped with strawberry jam, or even with waffles. It is also used as an ingredient in cooking, particularly in sauces for game meat.
Like any intensely flavored ingredient in a cook’s larder, brown cheese is endlessly versatile. A typical Norwegian dish is finnbiff or venison stew: brown cheese is the secret ingredient that adds both depth of flavour and richness to the sauce.
Usage and taste
Brown cheese is very common in the traditional Norwegian matpakke (literally “food pack”), which is a common Norwegian lunch—sandwiches are packed in a lunch box in the morning, and carried to work for consumption in the 30 minute lunch break commonly afforded to Norwegian workers. One advantage of brunost for this purpose is that although its texture changes if not refrigerated, its taste does not.
The taste is a difficult to describe, you just have to try it. An attempt to describe the taste might be as a deeply savory dulce de leche. The sweetness comes from overcooking whey until a Maillard reaction kicks in and the milk sugars caramelize. Brown cheese doesn’t go through any maturation process, and it keeps in the fridge for a few months.
What is Norwegian Brown Cheese? Written by Tor Kjolberg