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
Advertisements

Norwegian Cheese? Sure.

Bergen
Bergen’s Old Port, Bryggen

A week ago I found myself in Bergen, Norway, and there was just enough time to step into a few stores to get a jar of cloudberry jam and a big chunk of Tine Gudbrandsdalost. Yup, the latter is a foodstuff. The operative syllable in that monsterword is ost. Ost is cheese in Norwegian,  Swedish and Danish – such economical languages to learn, because a lot of words are like that: (near) identical in all three. The particular cheese someone had asked me to bring back comes from the 200-mile-long Gudbrands Valley in southeast Norway. The problem with the ost is that it is technically not ost at all. But don’t tell any Norwegians that. They may never speak to you again, because it is a food very interwoven in the cultural fabric.

Ost is made by heating up whey, the watery leftovers after milk curdles (that is, separates into solids and liquids during the cheese making process). The milk sugar in the whey caramelizes and gives the thickening goop a brown color – but because there is no coagulation of proteins, well – it doesn’t count as cheese, officially. Again, not that anyone in Norway cares. A very friendly woman in the covered market around the old harbor in Bergen took me through the various kinds of brown cheese she had on offer. They were all produced by Tine, a company that takes in milk from some 9,000 farmers, which makes it a dairy behemoth. She started me off with a piece of Gudbrandalsost and explained how, of all the brown cheeses, this was the lightest in color and flavor. “Young people, especially women enjoy this cheese” she said, with great authority. The cheeses got darker but more varied in flavor. Geitost is made with goat’s milk, but some cow’s milk cream is added in to make it extra smooth. “This” she said with measured gravity, “is something for a more mature gentleman like yourself”, so I made sure to like this one the best. The other two were darker yet, and a bit sweeter. One of them is known as Bestemorsost, grandma’s cheese. The young woman told me that it’s sweet, a kid’s favorite and that the name is supposed to evoke images of a visit with grandma and all the coziness that entails.

cheeses
Clockwise from top left: Undredal Geitost, Rød Geit, Fønix blåost, and Rød Kjerringøy

My new favorite store in Bergen, Colonialen sells neat little boxes with neat little pieces of Geitost (Tine’s ost comes only in brick- and half-brick sizes) which was just perfect. A bad encounter with some rather disappointing slices of cheese on a breakfast buffet earlier in the day did not get me into the mindset of gorging myself with brown cheese.

At Colonialen I also got a blue cheese from Stavanger in the south of Norway, Fønix; some Rød Kjerringøy, a red rind cow’s cheese from the coast near Bodø, a 24-hour drive north from Stavanger, and a thick slice of Rød Geit, probably the best of the bunch.

norway
Morning Sun along the Oslo-Bergen Railway, not far from where the Rød Geit is made.

It is made on the Ysteri (dairy) of Rakel and Jarle Rueslåtten in Hol, near the Oslo-Bergen Railway. It is a goat cheese with a washed rind and that makes it a goat cheese with an unusual stinky intensity – couldn’t recommend it more highly.

Gammelost
“You will not like it” – Gamelost from Vik

In another store I bought a piece of Gamelost, which Tine produces in the town of Vik on the Sognefjord. Gamelost means old cheese. ” You will not like it” said the polite young man in the store who cut off a piece for me. I think I saw him shake his head as I was leaving the store. This cheese is make from sour skim milk. Once the curds have formed, they are rubbed with the molds that give the cheese its very strong flavor. The cheese is unusually grainy and falls apart when you try to cut it – it has the consistency of a dry cupcake. In your mouth it is surprisingly chewy and it does take a while to grow on you.

Geitost II
Brunost, thinly sliced

Back from Norway I used a Norwegian invention, Thor Bjørklund’s cheese slicer, to peel thin slices of Undredal Brunost of my dainty little block and I felt relief with the first taste. This was creamy, goaty, complex cheese-stuff. It does have a bit of that salty, musty cheese flavor, before you taste the caramel, which eventually morphs into…licorice. I know, I know, this doesn’t make it sound any better maybe, if you were already skeptical. But believe me, once you have put aside any preconceived notions of what cheese should taste like, there is a world of flavors packed into a good block of brunost. Slice it thinly (if you do not own a cheese slicer – don’t let that drop out in polite conversation – just quickly get one, you troglodyte) and lay it out on knäckebröd from your local IKEA, or on your own favorite kind of bread and happy Norwegian goats and cows on green pastures surrounded by steep granite cliffs will appear before your mind’s eye and you will bite into a small piece of Norway – kjempegod!