27 July 2011

Brunost: A National Phenomena

Now, my fellow berserkers, we are halfway through Norway Week and it is time to introduce a friend of mine to you all: the brown cheese. Brunost, as it is known in Norwegian, is a national phenomena and uniquely Weegian. I'm honestly not pulling your leg. It is as much a symbol of Norway as skiing or the Vikings. Because national pride dictates that it should be found in every Norwegian home (whether you like it or not), it would be silly of me to omit writing about it here on this blog. So here I am, ready to wax lyrical about my little, cheesy friend in a semi-fanatical manner.

Technically, however, it is not a cheese at all. Traditional brown cheeses are made from the whey of goat's milk, boiled for hours until most of the water has evaporated and the whey sugars have caramelised, resulting in a thick, brown mass. Commercial brown cheeses are most often supplemented with goat or cow milk and cream. The 'cheese' is then poured into rectangular blocks, hardened and consumed with no maturing. What makes the brunost different from other cheeses, is the whey, which is usually thought of as a by-product, and not for human consumption. But true Norwegians have always had a 'waste not, want not' attitude, and throwing away whey would be considered a waste.

Brunost has been made in Norway for centuries, but was traditionally made with goat whey only. A variation, called prim, was also widely consumed. Prim is basically goat whey boiled for a shorter time than usual, and is spreadable. Then, one bright summer's day (or so I'd like to think), Anne Hov, a farmer's wife in Gudbrandalen (valley in eastern Norway) got the bright idea of adding cream into the cheese. This new, more fatty kind of brunost is now the most popular and common version (although prim is still widely consumed). Legend has it that Hov's new invention saved the valley financially in the 1880s, and – just to show how the brunost is to Weegians – she was awarded the King's Medal of Merit in 1933.

Foreigners, however, tend not to like it. Prior to tasting, they often demand a precise description. As any Norwegian would know, this is the ultimate nightmare, because it is ludicrously difficult to define. I stammer for a while, trying to find the right words. ''Well,'' I usually end up saying, with uncertainty, ''It is an acquired taste.'' Does that help? No, not really. Frankly, though, you just have to try it. It really cannot be described properly, so as to give it the credit it deserves. I'll give a shot anyhow: It's quite sweet, with a surprisingly salty flavour with a hint of goat about it. The texture resembles rubber and – unlike many cheeses – it is not chewy. Rather, it melts in your mouth into a sticky mass that coats your teeth and tongue. Brunost, in other words, is a sort of salty goat fudge. I'm not really selling the cheese, to you am I?

These days, we Weegians consume brown cheese (and coffee and waffles...) as if there was no tomorrow. It is eaten for breakfast, lunch or kaffimat; on slices of bread, on crispbread and with waffles. You slice the cheese using a cheese slicer (yet another wonderful Norwegian invention, incidentally). Any other utensil will damage the cheese. No joke. Many (myself included) like to slice the cheese and them into round balls (did I mention it's also very soft and flexible?) to give them that wonderful umami kick. The best brunost comes from the small cheese factories in Gudbrandalen (although commercial versions are good as well). There is no right or wrong when it comes to this beloved brown cheese. It's Norwegian, it's gorgeous and I strongly recommend it.

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