Smash! and Brown Cheese


Some people love to see museums when they travel, others like to spend their time looking at architecture, ruins or designer boutiques. When I travel, the place I most like to spend time getting to grips with a new country is the supermarket. You can learn so much about people through what they choose to feed themselves every week, and I can easily spend hours wandering through a well-stocked supermarket (to the eternal chagrin of those I travel with), figuring out what I can buy that will best give me a taste of this new culture. Norwegian supermarkets were a veritable gold-mine of things I had never seen or tried before, and a last-minute shopping stop on my way out of the country left me with a good stock of goodies to enjoy back at home. Well, okay, some things didn’t actually make it home. Some were so good, and had such a hilariously funny name, that they spent the entire flight home in my lap, simultaneously being eaten and chuckled at. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to smash!, my new in-flight snack of choice. Smash! make their little nuggets of ecstasy by taking a salty, crispy horn-shaped corn chip and dunking it in thick milk chocolate. Doesn’t sound good? Believe me, you can’t eat just one. They are a perfect mixture of crispy, creamy, chocolatey and salty – a peculiar combination of flavors (Norwegians seem to be really into this sweet-salty combo), but one that really works. I’m just wishing I brought more than one bag, so I could have had some to enjoy at home. Then again, I probably would have eaten two on the plane. Or three. Or four.

Brown cheese (Gudbrandsdalsost or Gjetost) is a uniquely Norwegian delicacy, and I’m told that national pride dictates it should be found somewhere in every Norwegian’s refrigerator, whether they actually like it or not. Prior to tasting, when I asked people to describe it, I got a lot of eye-shifting and stammering in response. I was told that it’s kind of a sweet cheese, but salty too. You eat it for breakfast with coffee, sliced thinly on crispbread. It’s made by caramelizing the milk prior to cheese-making, but apart from that no one could tell much about the production process. It can’t really be described, people insisted, I would just have to try it. I was also warned that it is somewhat of an acquired taste, which naturally intrigued me even more. When I finally had the opportunity to buy some, I picked up two large bricks of it, thinking I didn’t want to kick myself later for buying too little of the potential culinary find of the century. Which two to buy took some deciding, however, as there seemed to be about a dozen different varieties. Some, I gathered, were made with goat’s milk (I got this from the picture of gaily leaping goats on the package), but the ones I bought were cow’s milk (at least so I assumed, though subsequent research has led me to believe that all brown cheese has some proportion of goat’s milk in it). Then there was the question of color – brown cheese comes in several varieties of brown ranging from pale ivory to deep chocolate brown. I finally decided on medium-light and dark specimens, and lugged them home with great anticipation. So, what is brown cheese? You’re going to hate me for saying this, but it is indeed really hard to describe. The texture is very firm and dense yet slightly rubbery. It lacks the chewyness associated with regular cheese, however, and inside the mouth kind of disintegrates into a sticky mass that coats your palate and requires some unseemly sucking noises to coax it down. And the taste? It is sweet, quite sweet, with the initial flavor reminiscent of caramelized condensed milk. So far so good. However it is also quite salty (are we detecting a theme here?), a perception which hit me just as the cheese cemented itself to my palate, and that was followed by a whiff of sour pungency, like a strong aged goat cheese. When I list all the component tastes separately, I see nothing wrong: sweet, salty, pungently goaty…but together I found them quite appalling. I ate one piece of each of my two varieties (the dark one tasting distinctly more molassesy but otherwise identical), willing myself to enjoy it but sadly having to admit defeat. If it is an acquired taste, I have a long and torturous road ahead.

Have you ever eaten caviar from a tube? I hadn’t. But Norwegians love fish, and these tubes of caviar are ubiquitous – especially for breakfast (I wonder if it goes well with brown cheese?). The name is a bit of a misnomer, I believe – I would rather call it sweet-salty-fishy red paste. There are no perfect little pearls of expensive unhatched sturgeon eggs in here, just cod roe mixed with tomato paste, oil, and lots of salt and sugar. Did I mention that Norwegians like things sweet and salty? Oh good. Luckily Manuel gobbled this up in no time flat (I had to physically wrest it from his hands in order to take a picture), but alas, me+fish+sugar+salt+tube was not a happy combination.

Aside from (my new arch-enemy) brown cheese, I didn’t expect to find anything in the cheese department that tickled my fancy. Then I saw Nøkkelost, a mild rubbery white cheese looking something like Edam, but containing lots of little brown flecks. My first thought was cumin, since I’ve eaten cumin-spiked Gouda in Holland, but I could tell there was more to this cheese than cumin. And there was. Cumin, caraway and cloves, to be precise, and the effect is quite wonderful. I tried this cheese on bread but found I liked it best on its own, as that allows the complex blend of spicy and sweet flavors to shine through. Although the cheese part itself was nothing special, the combination of these spices made for quite a sophisticated palate-teaser – the last thing I expected to find in this section of the supermarket.

And finally, there was one last acquisition of mine that didn’t actually come from the supermarket, but I thought I would mention it here anyway. While I was helping to prepare food for the wedding buffet, I found myself admiring a large heavy cast-iron pot that belonged to Guro’s parents. Guro told me these type of pots are very traditional in Norwegian households, and though they’re not cheap, nearly everyone invests in one as standard kitchen equipment. I must have made quite a show of exclaiming how hearty and rustic and beautiful it was, because the day of my departure Guro gave me one exactly like it as a thank-you gift for my help. I was speechless. It is a monster of a pot, weighing in at 5 kilos (10 lbs!), but it is exactly the kind of thing you can use your whole life long for slow-cooking every type of roast and stew imaginable. And it even comes pre-seasoned! Le Creuset move over, I think you’re no longer on the top of my wish list. And thank you Guro, you know your way straight to this girl’s heart.