Our resident food writer and all-round explorer of Norwegian culture, Luke Slater, takes on brown cheese in the first instalment of his new column trying out traditional Norwegian dishes.
I remember the first time I saw brunost, the famous Norwegian light brown-coloured cheese. It was on the breakfast buffet at my Oslo hotel. Every Norwegian I met urged me to try it. It is a source of national pride to rival the plays of Henrik Ibsen or the work of Edvard Munch. I like cheese but I was still apprehensive. The Brits at my breakfast table were divided: they loved it or they loathed it. Sadly, this is where my memory fails. I genuinely can’t recall if I liked it.
So, here I am, seven years later, aiming to rediscover the cheese that arouses great curiosity and intrigue among non-Norwegians. Or, more specifically, here I am trying – and failing – to slice the soft putty-like block of cheese into delicately thin slices. Quick tip: use the classically Norwegian “ostehøvel” cheese slicer as it makes the job at least a thousand times easier.
Brunost literally means “brown cheese” and is a Norwegian classic. There are several variations – all brown, of course – but the most common is Gudbrandsdalsost, and that is the type I have procured. Brunost is made from a boiling combination of milk, whey and cream. In this process, the heat caramelises the milk sugars, which gives it a taste unlike most other cheese.
This means you can enjoy it in ways that appear unconventional. For example: on traditional Norwegian waffles. Or however creatively you dare. As I lack the necessary skills and equipment to make classic waffles, I decide to make an Anglo-Norwegian attempt at brunost, three ways – on Devon scones spread with strawberry jam, on toasted rye bread and with pancakes.
First, though, I want a small bite of the brown stuff on its own. Only a bit though. I soon realise what I was missing. It’s very sweet but subtly so. It’s smooth and creamy too. It’s not something you’d want to eat a whole hunk of, but in moderation it’s a winner. Finally, on to the Anglo-Norwegian brunost experimentation.
The pancakes aren’t much of a success and are, frankly, a poor waffle substitute. My error. The toasted rye bread is much better, despite the stark combination of flavours. A few gulps of black coffee help the experience, though. With the scones, I worried the brunost’s strength would overpower the jam but it ends up being complementary. This is revelatory. I quickly load up another scone and repeat until done. There could be something in this, you know.