A paean to Norway’s national cheese
My foot doctor is a proud Norwegian American from North Dakota whose ancestral roots go back to northwestern Telemark. But about a month ago, I learned she had never heard of geitost (goat cheese, pronounced “yayt ust”) or any other kind of Norwegian brunost (brown cheese). Of course, I felt immediately compelled to get her a package of Ekte Geitost (true goat cheese), for one cannot be a real Norwegian and never have eaten brunost, Norway’s national cheese. She and her sister both ended up loving it and wondering why they had not had it growing up in a community full of Norwegian Americans.
As a booster of all things Norwegian and as a lover of geitost (sometimes spelled gjetost), I thought it my duty to make sure that none of the readers of The Norwegian American lived out their lives unaware of brunost and its tasty benefits. So this heritage piece is intended as an ode to both geitost and the other varieties of brunost.
Brunost goes back at least to the Bronze Age in Scandinavia. Some burned brunost residue was found in Denmark in a clay pot that dated to more than 2,500 years ago. So Scandinavians—especially Norwegians—have been eating it for centuries. Brunost is another name for mysost (whey cheese). In fact, it is not strictly a true cheese, for it is made from the waste liquid that is left behind after cheese making; this is called whey. To make brunost you cook the whey with milk and/or cream for about 10 hours until much of the liquid has evaporated and it takes on the consistency of gooey fudge and has turned from white to brown in color. Then you place it in block molds and cool it until it hardens further. The result is a semi-soft, sweet cheese-like product. It is the caramelized sugars in the cooked-down milk that give this type of “cheese” its characteristic sweetness.
My favorite type of brunost is ekte geitost, which is made with goat milk. It is sweet and caramelly in taste, but with a noticeably extra sharp tang to the taste that derives from the goat milk. Another related variety of brunost is made with both goat and cow milk plus cream, and it is known as Gudbrandsdalsost. (Gudbrand’s Valley cheese). It was invented in the 19th century in the Gudbrands Valley by a woman named Anne Hov. Before inventing Gudbrandsdalsost she had added cream while cooking cow-milk whey. This first of her inventions is known as fløtemysost (cream whey cheese). Since it is partially made from goat milk, Gudbrandsdalsost still has a slight tangy taste from the goat milk, but it is sweeter and milder overall than ekte geitost. Fløtemysost contains no goat milk, so it is the mildest in taste and is the sweetest of the three main varieties of brunost.
To properly eat brunost, you must use a Norwegian-style cheese slicer known as an “ostehøvel,” specifically invented in the early 20th century to efficiently and easily slice brunost. The ostehøvel gives you thin, tasty slices of brunost that will deliver just the right amount of flavor to your mouth. You may put your brunost on a crisp cracker or slice of bread, or better yet, on a Norwegian heart-shaped waffle. Don’t skip butter; brunost marries beautifully with butter. And if you like, add some strawberry or raspberry jam, also a great taste partner with brunost. In addition, brunost enriches the flavor of Norwegian-style “brun saus” (brown sauce or gravy) which pairs wonderfully with meat balls or “kjøttkaker” (Norwegian meat cakes) and is really good with Norwegian “fiskekaker” (fish cakes).
Brunost delivers high amounts of pro tein, calcium, iodine, and vitamin B to your body. It does sport significant amounts of natural sugars but no salt. Admittedly, brunost contains a fair amount of fat yet much less than “real” cheeses. Overall, it is a nutritious food. Keep in mind that a proper ostehøvel will give you wafer-thin slices that offer plenty of taste; brunost is not something you pile high on a cracker or piece of bread. It is best used sparingly.
It is estimated that Norwegians eat 12,000 tons of brunost per year; that roughly translates to almost five pounds of brunost for every man, woman, and child in Norway. The most popular type of brunost is Gudbrandsdalsost, with fløtemysost being the second favorite. Geitost, perhaps because it has the strongest flavor, is third in popularity. In 2017, a truck loaded with 27 tons of brunost caught fire in a long tunnel in northern Norway. The fire, fueled by the sugars and fats in the cheese, raged out of control for four days and severely damaged the tunnel’s superstructure, so much so that the tunnel was closed for months while it was under repair.
The most common brand of brunost available in the United States is Ski Queen Gjetost which is sold in a red package in most supermarkets; it contains both goat and cow milk. However, you can now buy the blue-packaged Tine’s Ekte Geitost, which is made entirely from goat’s milk, at any of the major Scandinavian food stores, such as Willy’s Products in Florida, Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle, or Ingebretsen’s in Minnesota. These outfits have mail order so you don’t have to drive to them unless it is convenient. If you need a good cheese slicer, you can usually find them at any high-end kitchenware store; if they do not carry the Norwegian ones, the German ones usually are equivalent.
So now you have no excuse for not at least knowing about brunost and its blessings. If you have never eaten brunost, go try it; you may simply like it or you may fall in love with it. It tastes like nothing else in the world. How important is it to Norwegians? Well, Marianne Krogness, a famous Norwegian comedian and singer even wrote a song about it called “Jeg vil ikke dele dusj og geitost med deg” (I will not share my shower or goat cheese with you). In Norway, you know you have been dumped when your girlfriend or wife won’t share her beloved geitost with you!
Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 29, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.