25 May 2010

Brunost, Norwegian Brown Cheese

Living in Norway, I couldn’t not write about the phenomenon that is brown cheese. Brunost (or geitost) as it is known in Norwegian is a national treasure and is loved by old and young alike. Technically, though, it is not a cheese at all. Traditionally it is made from the whey of goat’s milk which is boiled for hours until most of the water has evaporated and the sugars in the whey have caramelised, giving the cheese its distinctive brown colour. Nowadays the whey is also likely to have been supplemented with goat or cow milk and cream. This ‘cheese’ is then packed into rectangular blocks, refrigerated and consumed straight away with no maturing.
To the uninitiated, the taste of brunost can come as quite a shock. It has a slightly salty and surprisingly sweet flavour with a hint of goat about it. A sort of salty goat fudge (mmm, sounds good doesn’t it). I must admit, it took me a while to get used to it but I’ve been eating it for years now and I love the stuff, and I have come to miss it when I am not in Norway.

Brunost has been made in Norway for centuries and like most traditional Norwegian food it harks back to a time when Norway was a relatively poor country. Usually the whey is thought of as a by-product of cheesemaking proper, and not for human consumption on its own (ricotta being the notable exception), but the wily Norwegians found good use for it, and it must have provided another welcome source of protein.

Today, of course, Norway is a wealthy country, but brunost remains as much a part of Norwegian life as the mountains and fjords. It can be eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner on a slice of buttered bread, with waffles, or sliced into gravy to give it a wonderful umami kick (I've even made some insanely good ice cream using it). There is no wrong time to have brunost and you will find it everywhere in Norway.

Although eaten in Sweden, it’s only really the Norwegians that have truly embraced it and regard it as part of their culinary heritage in a semi-fanatical way – in much the same manner a Brit might regard Marmite. There’s even a group on Facebook singing the delights of brown cheese with strawberry jam (not as bad as it sounds incidentally).
Brunost is always served using a cheese slicer (another Norwegian invention apparently) as it tends to disintegrate if you start hacking away at it with a knife. If you're London based and suddenly have an urge to try some then your best bet is at the Norwegian Seaman's church, where they have an annual Norwegian food festival around Christmas time. In the U.S., I was able to track down the Ski Queen brand of brunost at the local branch of Whole Foods, which is made by Tine, Norway's dairy monopoly.