Norwegian Cheese: best in the world?!

Norway Landscape
Norway in the Fall

Over the past few months I have traveled through Norway quite a bit. It is a country of perdendicular cliffs, deep fjords, beautiful old wooden churches, tacticurn people and yes, cheese. Not in the way that France or Italy are cheese countries. There, food trumps pretty much everything else in importance; many a heated debate or meandering discussion is devoted to the merits of this tomato versus that one, to the perfect way to roast a chicken or the preferred age of a soft cheese. In Norway, people seem too level-headed to let quandaries like these take over the afternoon, and I imagine Jørn Hafslund to be just such a Norwegian when he decided to make a cheese that was, well, just good. His tiny farm outside of Bergen with about a dozen cows was a labor of love, his was not a long pedigree of cheesemakers and I suspect that he may not have submitted his cheese to the World Cheese Awards competition if it hadn’t been held in Bergen last year. As it was, he presented his Fanaost and won first price. When I met the man who made the best cheese in the world, he was still not all that comfortable with his new found fame. “It iss nais, of kors. But also ferry stressful” he responded when I asked him about it. He could only muster a bit of a smile when my picture also had his son in it – sharing fame apparently helps to deal with it.

Ostegarden
Father and Son World Champions

Officially, the cheese is classified as a Gouda, which makes it a semi-hard, cooked cheese; yellow with an inedible rind. The flavor develops over time and this is why the age is rather crucial: a young Fanaost is a nice cheese, but not the gold medalist. That honor was bestowed on the Lagret Fanaost, matured for at least six months. Jørn has found an interesting way to cope with the skyrocketing demand: he is rationing the cheese he is willing to sell. I received a piece that was slightly more than 100 grams and could not get more. And even in Norway, where everything is expensive, I had a mild case of stickershock when I learned this slice of gold cheese would set me back about $10.

Rationed lagret
Lagret Fanaost – strictly rationed

Yes. Of course. The cheese was absolutely delicious, what would you think? Was it the best in the world? Who knows? An international jury said so and it has changed Jørn’s life. I found it to be surprisingly sweet, but with the saltiness that comes with maturity balancing perfectly. I would readily shell out another ten bucks if I could be granted permission to purchase another 100 grams, even if I am not sure I would travel all the way to his farm.

Fanaost
Cheesy Gold

There is Norwegian cheese to be had in a simpler and very surprising fashion. Fly through Oslo and you will find an amazing anomaly in the world of airport cheese stores. No person in their right mind and with a heart for cheese would purchase the colorful round cheeses they sell at Schiphol airport or the cute variety packs with an Eiffel Tower on them at Charles de Gaulle. At Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, the unsuspecting traveler can take his pick from among some 20 kinds of artisan cheeses, many made with raw milk, from small cheesemakers all over Norway. I picked up a Norwegian blue there on my way out the other week, and my now very high expectations were met: creamy blue, with the exact right saltiness and none of the sharpness that I don’t always enjoy.

A final flavor that is worth mentioning came my way as I traveled a high plateau just south of the Sognefjord, purchased in a countrystore that thought they would never find anyone in their right mind that would pay 160 Kroner for a heart-shaped piece of cheese. I must admit that I got it because I just thought it looked funny, not because I had particularly high hopes. It was Nøkkelost, a cheese with a slightly complicated etymology. What I found inside the yellow, heart shaped package was a straw-colored semi-hard cheese with cloves and cumin seeds mixed in, very flavorful. It allowed me to take another step in my recovery from an unpleasant encounter with cumin cheese in my youth.

As to the etymology of said cheese: Nøkkel means key, and the crossed keys are in the coat of arms of Leyden; Norwegians developed a taste for the cumin cheese from Leyden sometime in the mid-18 century but insist that today’s Nøkkelost is something quite different. Mine came from Inger Rosenfeld’s farm, who names his cheese after a half-blind cow, Melissa, he got for his 50th birthday and who became a mascot of sorts. She is on every cheese Inger sells, complete with eyepatch.

Nokkelost
Nøkkelost from Den Blinde Ku
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Return to Ancona

Trajan Arch
Trajan’s Arch & Shipyards

A while ago I returned to Ancona, and this time I was determined to visit the King of Cheese, the Re Formaggio, a cheese shop that was closed for the day the last time I tried to barge into the door. Even more so than on the previous visit, the city surprised me with what I am tempted to call Ancona Moments. The place is rather unassuming, with a big shipyard on its doorstep and a center that is a strange mismatch of all kinds of architectural styles and crimes against good taste, but you stumble across interesting bits and pieces on a regular basis. There is, for instance, Trajan’s Arch, built for that very same emperor who has a famous column in Rome, a market whereupon that column sits and a ruined bridge across the Danube near Drobeta-Turnu Severin in Romania all named after him. The arch is dwarfed by the cruise ships that are being built right behind it, and it stands a bit forlorn among the ramps and cranes of the shipyard. But it predates all that is being built around it by a cool 18 centuries: it was completed by 115.

Santa Maria della Piazza Ancona
Santa Maria della Piazza

Not far from the arch is the Romanesque church of Santa Maria della Piazza, with a beautifully structured façade showing a few fantastic looking animals. It never seizes to amaze me how worshippers back then thought of the Holy Trinity and the angels, but also of dragons, mermaids, chimeras and all these other creatures that can be found in the art that adorns the churches of the period; and doing so without any qualms about the false idol bit (Exodus 20:3-5).

Pistacchio Cake
Pistacchio Cake
Pizza di Formaggio
Pizza di Formaggio

Musing about my Ancona Moments I enjoyed an equally surprising piece of pistacchio cake in a café not far from the King of Cheese, where I picked up a few treasures. Pizza for instance. No, not what you think. Pizza (lord knows why, I never got a good explanation) in Ancona is a sort of huge muffin, made of fluffy if somewhat greasy bread, with big chunks of cheese baked in. A very tasty treat, although I think it ought to be eaten family style, as in: it takes a lot of people to finish one of them, because they are huge.

As always when I am in Italy I managed to buy a piece of cheese that came with an explanation I did not at all understand, and so I can report it was a bit dry and crumbly, but in a good way, and had a bit of a blue cheese flavor, but that all, folks. I bought a rather colossal chunk of Trentingrana Malga Rolle, a super hard cheese that you need to cut with a Tagliagrana, a cheese pick in essence, that is deployed to aggressively hack away at a big wheel of immutable cheese in the hope of breaking it down to more practical pieces. The cheese comes from a farm at a mountain pass in the shadow of the Pala di San Martino, at 9,800-feet peak in the Dolomites. It’s in the region of Trentino, and the cows that give the milk for it get to munch on a fine selection of alpine herbs, which gives the cheese that certain something extra. Trentingrana basically means had cheese from the region around the city of Trento; weeks later, we’re still grating it our pasta.

Pecorino di Fossa
Pecorino di Fossa

The piece de resistance of my cheese purchase was of course a raw milk bit of Pecorino di Fossa. There was nothing wrong with the first bit I bought here a while ago, but this cheese was something else. From the amber color to the slightly rank odor and from the slightly oily touch to the sticky texture to the intense flavor, this was a cheese that had gone through an awful lot before ending up on the shelves of the King of Cheese. The church of Santa Maria della Piazza, pistacchio cake and Marche-style pizza notwithstanding, it was the Pecorino di Fossa that made my return to Ancona a triumph worthy of that grand imperial roman arch.

Japan: where’s the cheese?

Japan New Year's
New Year’s Prayers and Wishes at a Temple in Tokyo

If you are in Japan, have limited time and you’re eager to check as many tourist attraction boxes as you can, don’t go looking for Japanese cheese. It is pretty labor intensive and a bit frustrating at times. Even in the basement of the large department stores, those incredible cornucopias of carefully prepared and packaged foods that offer anything you can actually eat (and some things you should really stay away from, if you ask me); even there you will not normally find homegrown products. There is no shortage of raclette, of Roquefort or Parmigiano. But Japanese cheese, not so much.

Of course, there are very few places in Japan suitable for herds of cows and there just isn’t much culinary history that involves dairy. But the Japanese, to their enormous credit, are obsessive about good food, eager to try new things and open to experimenting. Which made the hunt for Japanese cheese in Tokyo more than a little interesting. On a side note: we did not starve because I managed to keep the cheese-sleuthing to a bearable level, so we had a lot of time to try many other things from the Japanese table, including the much-hyped-but-really-not-all-that-dangerous fugu (watch the entire episode of the Simpsons that explains the possible dangers of eating poorly prepared puffer fish – season 2, episode 11.)

One of the first cheese experiences we had was in a restaurant that was purportedly all about cheese – what could possibly go wrong? We were in for more than one surprise. First off, we showed up for lunch time and the cheese dish the restaurant focused on, fondue, was only served in the evening. I opted for the next best thing which, in my mind, really is only a distantly related cousin: cheesecake. Purists may even accuse me of cheating but hold your horses for a moment. The cheesecake I was served didn’t just look like a big slice of cartoon cheese with holes in all the right places, it actually had small pieces of cheese in it.

Japanese Cheesecake
Cheesecake with …cheese?

Keep an open mind, now. Surprisingly, it worked quite well. And let’s be honest: 10 years ago no one would have put caramel and salt together either. At the airport, we found another creative departure from established cheesy tradition: carefully wrapped sweet sandwich cookies with a thin layer of cheese between them, using different kinds of cheese: I picked Roquefort and Camembert. As far as I am concerned, the cookies were quite good, whereas the cheesecake with real cheese was more of an …interesting flavor.

We were in Tokyo over New Year’s and the one purveyor of Hokkaido cheese was out of town for the holiday, otherwise finding Japanese cheese would have in fact been a slam dunk. Mr. Konno, alas, was off on a little vacation: the Voice of Cheese was closed. Konno-san has dozens of cheeses from small producers in Hokkaido, among them the Sakura cheese that is matured on cherry leaves. The small wheels of this cheese resemble Camemberts and they are sold with a little pickled cherry on the top, which makes them look a bit like round Japanese flags. Sakura cheese won a medal at the mountain cheese Olympics some 15 years ago and it is pretty much the only Japanese cheese you would have ever heard of.

Japanese Cheese
Shimuzu Farm red rind cheese

I enjoyed the sweet taste of success in one of the last food basements I visited: a red rind cheese from the Shimuzu farm in the Japanese Alps and some raclette, which we would teppanyaki with friends later in the day. Both were carefully crafted copies of European cheeses, unfortunately without much in the way of an identifiable Japanese touch. Not that I really need an excuse to travel to Japan again – it is hands down one of my favorite countries in the world – but now I know to come back for Mr. Konno’s cheese, and to discover what else the Japanese have come up with when it comes to チーズ. Heck, I might even go to Hokkaido for some cheese and to share a hot pool with those mountain monkeys.

Teppanyaki
Teppanyaki – raclette cheese bottom left….