Brunost: The brown cheese of Norway

Suitcase Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Once upon a time in Norway: The story of Brunost, a dairy rogue

What does Brunost taste like? It’s definitely a cheese, but it looks a bit like fudge and tastes a lot like caramel too. In any case, you should definitely try some if you come across it in a fancy deli, or just go to Norway, where the stuff is everywhere. In fact, the Norwegians are all over their weird cheese to the point if you’re at someone’s house for breakfast, you’ll find two kinds of cheese as standard: white and brown.

Brunost means “brown cheese”, but it’s available in plenty of shades, ranging from the dark, strong goat’s milk cheese to the light, mild variety made from cow’s milk. It all started with a milkmaid named Anne Hov, a true dairy rebel who made proper Brunost for the first time back in 1863. Anne was looking after the animals at her parents’ summer barn in Gudbrandsdalen, where she’d been making some regular white cheese when she thought to do something scandalous: she added cream to the whey. Boiling down the whey to make a sweet brown spread wasn’t uncommon, but cream was precious goods, usually saved for making butter.

Luckily for Anne her gamble worked out, as people liked her cheese. After perfecting her recipe, she started selling her invention, naming it Gudbrandsdal cheese. At 88, Anne received official recognition by the King of Norway for her discovery of one of the most distinctive and best-loved staples of the Norwegian breakfast table. Brunost is great on bread with butter, usually eaten without any other toppings because of the intense flavour. Norwegian cafés will often serve an open-faced sandwich with Brunost, or offer it with waffles. This is another Norwegian café staple: patrons are often given the choice between strawberry jam and sour cream, or Brunost for their waffles. Don’t put it under the grill though as it really doesn’t melt well, but if cooked in cream it makes a great sauce for meat or potato balls.

Norwegians are proud of their Brunost, which inspires patriotism at home and is usually the first thing to go in the suitcase for Norwegians who live abroad. While Norway is the only country in the world that makes whey cheese at scale, purists will point out that Brunost isn’t technically cheese, as this term is reserved for curd products. In any case, the brown stuff makes a great souvenir for those less keen on troll keyrings or road signs warning of elk.

And the historic whey cheese, the poor one they used to make before Anne Hov thought to add cream? It developed as well, and is now available as a paler, more spreadable sandwich topping popular with Norwegian kids: Prim. As Norwegian refer to Brunost generically as “goat’s cheese”, you’ll have to remember to specify if you want white goat’s cheese brought back from the shop, as the default is brown. In fact, if you don’t specify the variety you’ll probably get Anne’s Gudbrandsdal cheese, which still remains the most popular of all the Brunost varieties. That’s one clever milkmaid.

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