When I was a college student living in San Francisco in the early 90s, nothing made me more excited than receiving a care package of brunost from my family. Regarded as the epitome of Norwegian food, the familiar taste brought back fond childhood memories, of cherished time with my family at the breakfast table, going skiing in the majestic mountains close to my hometown, or visiting near and dear friends and family where the food served to guests often were centered around brunost. Topped on waffles, sveler and homemade savory cookies and crisps, accompanied with a nice cup of coffee? Yes, please!
With its rich, caramel flavor, brunost is both tangy and sweet and almost fudge like in texture. Whenever I serve it to Americans, they look at it and first assume it’s peanut butter. I’m always surprised at the reactions and look on the faces of my new countrymen when they taste gjetost. For some reason I would have thought they would find it strange and unappealing due to its sharp taste and un-traditional appearance, but every single person that has tried it, loves it and has even turned it into their new favorite food. Precisely because it is so different and unique to anything else out there, I nominate brunost as one of my favorite food items in the world. No other Scandinavian country can claim it either – another slam dunk for Norway! Ha! So how did this ‘cheese’ come to be?
Unique to Norway, brunost making has been going on in this country for several hundred years. Brunost (which means ‘brown cheese’) plays a central role in our food tradition. There is a national pride connected to this product which is hard to explain. Closely tied to farming and rearing of animals, it was the milkmaid in the mountain dairy farms who was responsible for making brunost in the very beginning. In Norway, the women were the ones in charge of the pastures, while the men did the lumbering. The women took care of the animals, and the dairy farms were their kingdom. Because many men had seasonal work such as going out at sea, women were frequently left with the day to day responsibilities of running the farm. I believe this is a big reason that we have such strong females in our country to this day, we know how to take care of ourselves! But I digress….
Originally brunost was a cheese high in sugar and low in fat. That changed in the mid 19th century, when Anne Hov, a woman from an area in Norway called “Gudbrandsdalen”, began the practice of adding cream or sour cream to the whey to create a richer cheese. This is how the most popular brand today, “Gudbrandsdalsost” , came to be. Anne Hov played a big role in turning brunost into a beloved product all across the country. We will touch on more details about the Gudbrandsdalsost later.
WHAT IS BRUNOST, AND HOW IS IT MADE?
The name literally translates into ‘brown cheese’ and is sometimes also referred to as ‘gjetost’, which means ‘goat cheese’. This is, however a misleading term. Why? Because some ‘gjetosts’ are made from cow milk, some from goat or a mix of the two.
Gjetost, or brunost, is technically not a cheese, as it is made from the whey, which is the liquid remaining after the cheese has curdled or strained. Whey consists of whey protein, water and lactose (milk sugars). The whey is separated from the cheese during the cheese making and cooked down.
Let’s consider a certain amount of goat milk goes in to make ‘white’ cheese. What is left behind afterwards is whey, to which warm, whole goat milk is added and a small amount of cow milk. This causes the cheese mixture to coagulate and form a pudding consistency. Most of the water is eliminated by coking the whey over moderate heat for several hours and under reduced pressure in a vacuum steamer, before being cooked in large pots at relatively high heat. The entire cooking process will take about 9-10 hours, and the finishing cooking phase will last for about 1 1 /2 hours; this is when the cheese achieves its brown color. The higher the temperature and pressure, the darker the color. The browning of the cheese comes from the caramelizing of the milk sugars which develops under heat/ the cooking process.
Towards the end, some cream will be added. The cheese will be ready when the mix is firm enough to knead, but should not be dry. The cheese will then be cooled down for about 20-30 minutes, and stirring is still important during this time. This is because the sugar from the milk is dissolved in the water when the cheese is warm, but when it cools down, the sugar will crystallize. It is important to make sure that the crystals won’t turn so large that the cheese gets a “sandy” texture.
The cheese mass will be shaped and placed into appropriate wooden or plastic containers, and stored in a cool place until the following day. At this stage, the cheese will be packaged, or in case of the “specialty” brunost with patterns, will be decorated and smoothed out so that the edges are even. A lot of work is behind this procedure, and after researching the making of brunost, I have decided to pay more respect to this cheese the next time I eat it and savor every morsel!
Brunost is found in many variations, and the differences lie in the proportions of whey, milk and cream, and whether the cheese is made from cow milk, goat milk or a combination of the two.
Norwegian brown cheese, or goat cheese, will taste different depending on what dairy farm it is from, what type of milk is used, its freshness, the hygiene and caring for the animals, the pastures, how long the whey is cooked and the level of heat applied. The latter contributes to the intense, caramelized taste of the cheese.
There are three main types of brunost found in Norway:
Gudbrandsdalsost: As previously explained, this cheese hails from the region of Gudbrandsdalen, known for medieval farms and good skiing. Located in eastern Norway, about 180 km from the capital of Oslo, this region owes a lot to brunost. This cheese is a mixture of goat and cow milk, and has a rich and round taste, with elements of sweet and caramel like flavors.
Ekte geitost (‘authentic goat cheese’): Made from goat only; a mixture of goat whey, goat cream and goat milk. Sweet with a caramel flavor, it has a distinct goat milk taste to it.
Fløtemysost: Slightly lower in fat , with a milder flavor, fløtemysost is also lighter in color than the other two listed above. This cheese is made from cow milk and cream.
In the U.S, you will also see this package with brunost called “Ski Queen”:, a mix of cow and goat milk. I’ve seen this widely available in many grocery chains, Whole Foods, specialty gourmet shops and health food stores.
igourmet.com, one of the online stores gjetost or Ski Queen can be purchased, describes it as follows; “gjetost is packed with energy and is extremely tolerant of temperature fluctuations. Because of these benefits, Gjetost is a preferred snack for Norwegians skiers, who pack it in their backpacks and snack on it while on the trails. This is where the Ski Queen brand name comes from, and may be one of the secrets to the international success of Norwegian cross-country skiers.”
Another shot of some of the many types of brunost types out there- I don’t even know them all as many of them have been created after I moved to the U.S.:
There are more formal brunost types out there too, which are hand carved and more expensive, and consequently served at special occasions only. My mother would sometimes bring these home during holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and it always made for a very festive and impressive centerpiece.
About 12,000 tons of brunost is being produced yearly in Norway, where of this, 50% is Gudbrandsdalsost, 30% fløtemysost and 8-10% ekte geitost. The rest consist of specialty cheeses and “homemade” farm cheeses.
For many Norwegians, brunost has become an icon and is closely associated with Norwegian food; it is sold and served with baked goods at Norwegian seamen’s churches and organizations around the world, it’s present on most people’s breakfast tables, as well as used in sauces, served with baked goods and added to chocolate and even ice cream. In fact, 30% of all cheese being consumed in Norway is estimated to be brunost. However, consumption has slowly declined over the past decade although stabilized the last year or two. This might be because are Norwegians eating less bread, and have greater selections of spreads and sandwich toppings to choose from today.
Below is a recipe I’ve had for a while for an ice cream cake utilizing brunost. Can’t think of a fun and different dessert to make for you and your guests? Try this one for a new culinary adventure!
ICE CREAM CAKE WITH BRUNOST FILLING
4 tbsp sugar
100 grams (3.5 oz) brown cheese, shredded
½ cup all purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder
1 quart vanilla ice cream of your choice, softened
50 grams (2 oz) hazelnuts, chopped
100 g (3.5 oz) brown cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 350F.
Whisk the eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. Fold in the shredded brunost, flour and baking powder. Choose a brunost with a more powerful flavor, and don’t be afraid to use too much! Line a 13×9 inch baking pan with parchment paper and pour the batter in. Bake in the middle of the oven for about 30 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Take the cake out of the oven and place onto a rack topped with paper to cool off.
To make the filling: Stir the ice cream until it softens a bit more, add the shredded brunost and chopped nuts. Spread the ice cream on top of the cake and roll it into a log, starting with the wider side. Wrap the cake in plastic and place into freezer for several hours. When ready to serve, slice into pieces.
Pair it with a nice ice wine like the Inniskillin Vidal ice wine from the Niagara Peninsuala and you have a true, arctic meal!
Leaving you with an ultra Norwegian image of an open faced sandwich topped with brunost, often part of our ‘matpakke’ (lunch pack or lunch bag), a symbol of modest, every day living. Satisfying, simple while still luxurious – brunost will always have a special place in the heart of the Norwegian people!