Brown cheese, posing caviar and other adventures in Norwegian food

Rob recently completed the final part of his West Coast Chronicles, documenting his caffeinated adventures in Norway. However he felt that there were enough oddities falling outside of his journalistic jurisdiction of coffee to justify a follow-up post:

Returning to Norway, there’s always a sense of being welcomed home by the indigenous traditions of waffles, skolebrød and open-faced sandwiches.

norwegian food

However there’s also feeling of recognising things I’ve missed or even forgotten existed. Rediscovery can lead to great joy, as well some ‘hang on a minute’s and ‘how the hell did I ever consider this normal’s.

norwegian food

‘normal’

I find an abundance of these experiences in my mother’s kitchen, when snooping for eateries and marvelling at the sheer substance of food. My parents don’t even keep their fridge abundantly well-stocked (anyone been in a U.S. kitchen recently? good god), but the contrast to the student’s half jar of mustard and some salvageable root vegetables on a good day, is enough to make my head spin.

While having my fill, I couldn’t help but study some of the more specifically Norwegian products. I realised that in spite of a rather plain natural palate, Norwegian food habits can be quite peculiar, and many are worth a mention. Now, let’s break out that ostehøvel.

Brunost:

Starting with the classic Brunost: simply meaning brown cheese, brunost is a true icon of the Norwegian home – always present, always necessary, always providing comfort. The cheese is caramelised and can have a variety of seasonings such as cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg, with varying degrees of strength and sweetness. And it is sweet – often served with or without jam on an open-faced sandwich, this cheese isn’t to everyone’s liking but it remains immensely popular in Norway. All the more tragedy when last year a truck of the stuff caught fire in a tunnel and 27 tonnes were burnt.

If you want to try this particular entry, you’ll find it amongst the treats of Baltzersen’s lunch menu koldtbord.

Jarlsberg:

Jarlsberg is a less demanding cheese and has gained considerable popularity outside of its origins – it’s been imported to the U.S. since 1964. For those that aren’t familiar with it, Jarlsberg is a soft and mild cheese with a slight sweetness and nutty flavour. It works extraordinarily well on its own as well as for cooking.

However its history and production is a little out of the ordinary. Swiss cheese masters visited Jarlsberg in the 1820’s and taught the secrets of their fine produce with the trademark holes to some of the locals. Swiss cheese production in Norway eventually faltered, but in the 1950’s a group of researchers pieced together old evidence and remains, and eventually drew up a production process for a fine, white soft cheese with holes. They called it Jarlsberg – you might know it. The secrets are kept under lock and key to this day.

Mackerel in tomato sauce:

 

Ah, here’s a legend: Mackerel in tomato sauce. I know, it bewilders me too. Norway’s natural mackerel sources pale in comparison to cod or salmon, and of course tomatoes aren’t indigenous to the country. Yet for some reason this fish hermetically sealed in tomato remnants is one of the most popular sandwich toppings in Norway.

It may  be a result of this product being one of the few tinned mackerel options on the market when it was introduced in the 1950’s. Or perhaps it’s simply that mackerel in tomato sauce is damn delicious! Its downside being the horrible mess of tomato paste and fish oil (the two combined stain worse than ink) that it WILL make your kitchen (and breath, for at least two days) smell of fish oil. But it’s totally worth it. You cannot begin to understand how much I love mackerel in tomato sauce.

“Caviar”:

Of course we mustn’t forget Norwegians’ obsession with putting food in tubes. I don’t know if the Nordic countries are planning interstellar exploration any time soon, but their astronauts will be culturally well-prepared in any event. On the top of the list is what Norwegians might call caviar – it’s more a sugar and salt-cured fish egg mix with oils, mayonnaise, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the result is a lovely topping with a distinct but not too harsh flavour – however the main brand sports 45 % actual fish egg and the most popular variant, ‘Kaviar Mix’ has a measly 30 %, with egg yolks in the recipe that have given creamy delight to generations of Norwegians oblivious of what caviar actually is, let alone tastes like.

Liver pâté:

Also on the list of bastardised delicacies is leverpostei, Norway’s valiant attempt at the continental liver pâté. However duck and geese are spared, in exchange for pork liver and lard. The result is a much milder pâté spread on bread and crackers, often with cucumber or some such on top. Far from the elitism and questionable animal ethics of the continent,  leverpostei is yet another strong staple of the Norwegian social cuisine culture.

One for good measure:

The final mystery in my mother’s kitchen is less a product and more a design: beyond brunost and Jarlsberg, Norway serves up a relatively plain, soft yellow cheese, with none of the strong flavours we may associate with say cheddar or Leicester. This makes the cheese compatible with a variety of toppings, but the oddest one has to be Norwegians’ habit of combining it with jam. Strawberry jam, raspberry, gooseberry, blueberry, marmalades… somehow a tasteless cheese is supposed to improve the experience of what would otherwise probably be an excellent preservative – now apparently improved by the addition of the dairy equivalent of celery.

norwegian food

Not pictured: ridiculous food combinations

Maybe I sound over-critical; if I do it’s because I grew up with these products and think I’ve earned the right to poke a little fun. Every country has their oddities and bizarre habits. Norway, with its oil, excellent social welfare and ever-majestic fjords, is no exception. I strongly recommend trying out all of these delicacies, should you ever be afforded the chance, if only for the adventure. You never know what new favourite might be just around the corner.

For more Nordic food oddities, check out Anna’s Karelian pasties, or learn Linda’s secret to Baltzersen’s cinnamon buns. And who can forget Mary-Jane’s Swedish Princess cake after GBBO? And of course there’s Great-Grandma Baltzersen’s centurial recipe book, with recipes and history alike.

Immerse yourself further in the Nordic culture with Rob’s West Coast Chronicles in eight parts, documenting a quick ‘holiday’ in his hometown in Norway.

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