This next cheee is, well, technically not a cheese at all.
Let me explain…
Way back when in 1863, in the valley of Gundbrandsdalen in southern Norway, a milkmaid named Anne Hov had an idea. The region where she had grown up was suffering from an economic recession due to the falling profits from grain and butter. Hov came up with the solution to mix the cream she had been using to make butter, with whey, a byproduct of cheese. (As you may recall, when milk ferments, it separates into curds and whey. The curd is pressed and turned into cheese.) The product was a hearty, buttery cheese-like substance that became known as Gjetost* or Brunost. Gjetost made its way onto the food market in Oslo, grew hugely popular, helped the Gundbrandsdalen Valley out of their recession and became known as a gastronomic staple in Scandinavia.
Procuring and Tasting:
You can find Gjetost (or Ski Queen cheese, as us Americans call it) at some grocery stores including Whole Foods where they sell just over half a pound for $6.99. I ended up procuring it from what felt like a more authentic source. One afternoon at the shop, a customer came in asking if we had Gjetost cheese.
“No, we don’t. Sorry, sir,” I replied.
“That’s okay. I know where I can get it,” he answered back knowingly. He mentioned a Norwegian Sailor’s Church on 52nd Street that he has been going to for years.
A church that sells cheese? Where do sailors fit into all of this? I thought to myself. I was intrigued.
I quickly jotted this information down on a receipt slip before attending to the next customer. Several days later, I enlisted a friend to join me on a cheese hunt. We took the A then the E to Turtle Bay, getting off at the stop just before the train crossed the river to Queens. We walked a couple avenues eastward until we reached a building with a Norwegian flag hanging in front. Upon entering, we were greeted by a blond woman who asked if she could help us.
“Do you sell, uhh, cheese?” I asked slightly uncomfortably. I felt weird asking if a church, of all places, sold cheese, of all foods!
“Gjetost? Yes, we sell that.” Phew, that would have been embarrassing if this had all been a misunderstanding on my part. She led us around the corner where a fridge and a shelving unit held an array of foreign packaged foods, all labeled in Norwegian. She pulled out a hefty brick of the cheese, wrapped in red plastic.
“We have a few types of this Brunost cheese, but this is the most popular kind” she explained. Sold. I paid $11 for a pound of this mysterious, quasi-cheese.
Before we left, she told us that Gjetost is traditionally enjoyed with a classic Norwegian cracker, Knekkebrød, or can be mixed with other ingredients to create a sauce for serving with meat. She also gave us a brief history of the place. The Norwegian Seaman’s Church in NYC has been a refuge for Norwegian sailors starting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It opened in 1878 in Brooklyn, close to docks where sailors would take rests from their voyages. Just 25 years ago, as a result of the dwindling number of working seamen, the church moved to a more central location in midtown Manhattan where it continues to serve as a home away from home for Norwegian families, travelers, and Scandinavian immigrants.
Now remember, Gjestost is not technically a cheese. It has a very unusual look, texture and taste. First of all, it’s a peanut butter shade of brown. When I first tried a slice, I was not a fan. It had a consistency similar to peanut butter, only a little more meltable and buttery. It tasted like caramel with a touch of tang and savoriness. It was dense and coated my mouth. My friends who I tried it with didn’t like it either.
I had already put so much time and money into procuring Gjetost that I couldn’t switch cheeses, however. I guessed I was going to have to find a way to enjoy the pound of it I had on my hands.
There must be a reason why Norwegians love this stuff so much, I figured.
Cooking with Gjetost:
Gjetost redeemed itself when I tried it alongside other foods and ingredients. First I experimented pairing it with a Knekkebrød cracker that the woman at the church had recommended. Delicious! The hearty, dry, seedy cracker absorbed the buttery, sweetness of the cheese, creating a well-balanced, satisfying snack.
Next, I incorporated it into a bread pudding recipe I found on culturecheesemag.com. The cheese made the pudding more savory than sweet, but still delectably soft and moist. A perfect dessert for those of us who are not the biggest sweet-tooths.
All in all, despite my initial misgivings, I would definitely recommend Gjetost. It really is a wonderful cheese when paired with the right foods. If nothing else, this Scandinavian delicacy will make you feel transported to the majestic, rustic mountains of Norway.