Norway’s national diet harks back to its days as a poor country, with a focus on preserving fish and meats in salt, lots of potatoes and simple sauces. This heritage still dominates today with delicacies such as lutefisk eaten through choice rather than necessity.
One of Norway’s best loved culinary treats is also one of its simplest and I’m surprised it’s taken me ten months to write about it. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I present to you the Norwegian phenomenon of… brown cheese.
Yes, it really does look like that.
Shortly after I arrived in Oslo, my friend Ståle decided to “treat” me to my first taste of this Norwegian phenomenon. I agreed, but on the condition that he try none other than Marmite on toast. It was a cultural culinary exchange like no other!
Brown cheese has a lot in common with Marmite:
- Both are eaten at breakfast, lunch or tea
- Both are made using a by-product of another process
- Both sound utterly disgusting
- You either love it or hate it
- Both foods have spawned mad fan groups
Anyway, back to the point.
What is Brown Cheese?
In simplest terms, Brunost is a tan-coloured whey cheese with a distinctive caramel flavour. Part of me feels it’s cheating to use the word cheese at all, because, well, it isn’t cheese! The production process is simple. The water from the whey of goat’s milk is boiled down, which caramelises the sugars. The resulting gloop is left to cool and bingo, brown cheese. It's set in blocks, wrapped and can be eaten (and by some, enjoyed) immediately.
In Norway most brown cheese is produced by the national dairy TINE, although many regional variations exist. Everyone seems to have a favourite, but if there's brown cheese on the lunchtime buffet, its fans will make a beeline for it whatever its origin. I'm not normally in that queue.
The most common way to serve brunost is with a unique cheese slicer, an integral part of every Norwegian kitchen. You take a slice from the block and can eat it atop toast, a crisp bread with strawberry jam or with waffles, but I've seen it consumed in all manner of inventive ways.
Ståle didn't give up after my first taste of brunost ended with a screwed up face. A few weeks later he tried again, this time incorporating some brown cheese into a sauce for pancakes. This was much nicer and I recommend it as a good introduction to the unique flavour.
For me, the most off-putting aspect of brunost is the colour. During my first tasting session, I couldn't help but notice the similarity in hue with my floor:
What Does Brown Cheese Taste Like?
This is a difficult one. Back to Marmite, which is commonly described as a “strong yeasty spread”, which although accurate, isn't descriptive enough for someone who's never tried it. It's exactly the same with brown cheese, you just have to try it.
The trick is to not think of it as a cheese at all. If you are expecting to taste a fine cheddar you will find the taste repulsive! But if you expect to taste a creamy, caramel yet savoury mixture, you're in for a treat! A few other blogs I've read describe the taste as “salty goat's fudge” so I guess that's as good a description as any.
Having been in Norway for just under a year I do now indulge in a slice from time to time and I do admit I'm slowly becoming accustomed to its charms. Note that's very different from liking it! Most foreigners seem to acquire the taste over time, but is it more a case of caving in?
What do you think of brown cheese? Let me know in the comments below 🙂