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Saturday
Jul232005

Smash! and Brown Cheese

smash.jpg


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.

ironpot.jpg


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Reader Comments (30)

Oh Me Too! I could spend days wandering around unusual (good) supermarkets.... looking for unusual ingrediants I have never heard of or have spent ages looking for!

That pot looks spectacular! You wont know yourself :)
July 24, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterclare eats
I wish i could go to norway just to taste these smash; they look and sound so good (and junk).
Fanny
July 24, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterfanny
LOL, well, you said it before - museums go home, supermarkets, roll in! Loved reading this, I know some of the things you had (though not necessarily by taste), so it's funny seeing what people with no idea of what it'll be like thinks of it!
July 24, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterZarah Maria
Melissa,

I even wander supermarkets here in the States and even what chain stores offer varies from region to region (although local stores are certanly best).
July 24, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterkevin
Oh, Melissa. Dear, dear. My first attempt at eating gjetost was a decidedly fabulous experience! But then the second time was, well, less fabulous. If you think of it more as a caramel with sea salt, which is oh-so trendy, perhaps you'd enjoy it more?
July 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
That is some pot! Gorgeous.Now I don't feel silly lugging a 6 kg olive wood chopping board in my hand baggage back from Italy!
July 25, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterdeccanheffalump
Hi Clare - The pot is indeed a beauty. I'm still marveling at how I managed to carry it home without injuring myself!

Hi Fanny - Maybe if we all gang up on smash! and swamp them with requests they'll consider exporting to the rest of Europe :)

Hi Zarah Maria - So glad you agree! Manuel thinks I'm some kind of cultural cretin for preferring supermarkets to museums. But I think supermarkets themselves are a kind of museum, only that they're ever so much more fascinating because their exhibits give us insight into people who are still alive!

Hi Kevin - Absolutely! When I travel in the US I'm always again amazed that so much regional diversity has persisted in the face of Starbucks and Wal-Mart everywhere...

Hi Catherine - So you're saying for you it was an acquired distaste? Interesting! You know, at first I thought it did taste like salted caramel (which I love), but something about the pungent cheesy overtones just ruined that effect. I think I'll happily stick to non-goat flavored salted caramel, thank you! ;)

Hi Deccanheffalump - I don't think you're silly at all! I would have done the exact same thing. In fact, this pot went in my hand luggage as well, and try to imagine the hassle I had at every security check, with an impenetrable piece of metal the size of a kitchen sink in my bag...
July 25, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
I think one must be weaned on gjetost to like the stuff. Luckily I tried it at a breakfast buffet one day (I managed to quietly spit it out into a napkin and not offend any of the natives who were happily noshing on it) and thus didn't waste precious luggage space on it.
July 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterKate
Yeah, it was like love at first bite, but then too much of a good thing. I read recently that, in the Pepsi challenge (where everyone preferred Pepsi) sales of Pepsi never actually outpaced Coke. Wondering why, researchers eventually realized that Pepsi tasted better to people for the first sip or two, but for a prolonged drinking experience the preference waned -- it was too sweet. Maybe it's something like that for me; one taste is great, and after that, it significantly declines bite after bite...
July 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine
What interesting-sounding snacks.

I love that pan. What a nice gift!

I've recently developed an interest in cooking and realize the importance of a good pan/pot, among other things.... When I go to Spain to visit a friend, I plan on bringing back with me a nice paella pan. I'll do as you and Deccanheffalump (chopping board sounds nice!) -- pack it in my hand luggage as well. I'm prepared for the hassle of being stopped at security checks. I've been stopped for less before. ;-)

Paz
July 25, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Hi Melissa, I am new to your blog (been reading for a while though), and I do exactly the same thing when I am in new country or town. I love buying different items which I wouldn't come across at home.

Great post!

July 26, 2005 | Unregistered Commentersaffron
a good supermarket, as I consider it, is one that contains a maximal amount of local/regional goodies and ingredients.
For example, here in Israel there's a massive chain of very large supermarkets (called "Mega"), that have a mini spice shop in each of them! It's always interesting to see what they have to offer.
When I go to supermarkets, the first places I head to inside are the produce, spice, wine, bakery and condiments sections. I believe that the heart of the local taste lies in these sections - the local tastes, trends, etc. are all there.
I also try to get to open air markets, and see what's on offer there. The market in Barcelona is amazing, and HUGE. The best nectarines I've ever had were from there.
July 26, 2005 | Unregistered Commentermalka lev adom
Hi Paz - a paella pan sounds lovely, make sure you get a really heavy sturdy one! And the best way I've found to deal with security is just to act like it's the most natural thing in the world that you're transporting kitchen equipment halfway across the world. After all, some people buy art, others buy pots and pans!

Hi Saffron - Thanks for stopping by! Glad you're of the same opinion - edible things make the best souvenirs of a place, don't they?

Hi Malka - That's interesting that you have a method for supermarket exploration - I just usually wander aimlessly through the aisles looking for interesting things. And I completely agree about real markets - in many ways they're better than supermarkets! I often dream at night about La Boqueria in Barcelona, I was so frustrated that I didn't have a kitchen to go home to last time I was there!
July 26, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
ahhhh.....your Norwegian posts are bringing back memories of my trip last month. The other thing I remember in the supermarket was a http://tinani.c7f.net/brandon/norway-trip/img_4781">huge frozen fish that had me laughing since we were playing with it. My friend also had me try the brown cheese and said all the same things you mentioned. However, I enjoyed the cheese and actually helped her finish her package. But the caviar, I found that a bit weird.

It seems that many Scandinavians have found they don't like but must eat anyways. I remember my Danish christmas meals were everyone is eating pickled herring and drinking Schnapps. However, I don't think I met one Dane in an entire year that said herring was the best thing to eat and that they enjoyed the consumption of Schnapps. Those silly Scandies!
July 26, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterbrandon
Thanks for the tips, Melissa!
Paz ;-)

July 27, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPaz
Melissa - that cast iron pot is sooo gorgeous. I'm really jealous of you now:) Enjoy!
Pille
July 27, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPille
Brandon... I guess that a part of it is the tradition in itself. The "midsommar" is very important and the herring has a central role there as well on a "smörgåsbord". And, actually many people really do love herring (although I'm not one of them!). The snaps on the other hand is not really supposed to taste good but it warms you up and serves some other purposes as well ;)

However, I like the "getost" very much and I'm glad you had a taste Melissa! In Sweden we even have a soft spread variety of it called "messmör" (which is quite a funny name as it would translate to: nerd-butter) and that might suite you better. Oh! that came out so wrong! not because of the name... cause it has less of the goat-cheese taste and more of the caramel.

But like Kate said, you might need to grow up eating it to like it. I think all countries have food like that, for instance will Mermaite/Vegimite make me sick anyday... :(
July 27, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterce
Was reading this while we were in Taipei and was utterly tickled by how completely food obsessed all of us are! We regretted not bringing an ice-box/eski with us to haul back fabulous pork and amazing vegetables and fruit.

Another great thing to have when transporting random culinary treasures is a hardcased carry on. Perfect for delicate fruit or porcelain. I once hand-carried 20 ramekins in two different sizes back when we couldn't easily find them in Singapore!

I want a tagine from Morocco...
July 28, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterS
Hi Brandon - I guess we all have our cultural/culinary traditions that we stick to even if we don't actually enjoy them! For example how many Americans actually like dry roast turkey and greenbean casserole at Thanksgiving? ;)

Hi Paz - Anytime!

Hi Pille - You're welcome to borrow it anytime! But you have to come and pick it up yourself... ;)

Hi Ce - Okay, I've added 'nerd butter' to things I have to try next time I go to Sweden! :) And I completely agree about most cultures having a food that outsiders have difficulty developing a taste for - I think it must foster stronger feelings of connection and inclusion with our fellow countrymen/women. I've run across plenty of people in Europe who can't stomach the idea of a pumpkin pie, for example! But Vegemite, I actually like...

Hi S -The hardcased carry on is really a good idea - I carry so many breakable treasures in my backpack, by now I'm used to treating it like it was full of eggshells! And Taipei sounds lovely - it's another place on my future Asia hitlist. Do let us know what you bring back!
July 28, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Thanks for the offer, Melissa. But I would have to start going to the gym before that, otherwise I'll drop all five kilos of it on a way from Grassmarket to Marchmont and that would be a pity:)
I guess it'd be easier to ask for advise re: where to find one from you or Guro before going to Norway next time instead..
July 28, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterPille
Even with the mountain of All-Clad I have in my kitchen, I've found that my two favorite pots are my cast iron skillet and my Le Creuset dutch oven. There's just something about cast iron that's so romantic. I get a certain sense of pride as I watch my skillet turn black with use...
August 1, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam
Hi Pille - I got the impression that they were available in just about any kitchen store in Norway, seeing as they're considered such 'standard equipment'. I'm sure you could find one in Britain if you looked hard enough - have you tried googling it?

Hi William - I agree, cast iron feels so primeval somehow! And you know, I get a sense of pride from watching all my pots and pans start to look black and battered and abused. It makes me feel like there must be some serious action going on in my kitchen!
August 1, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
Gjetost - you never forget your first bite of it, do you?
The way I like it best is with sliced apple - fuji is great. Cut them into batonnets of the same size and piggyback them into your mouth - like a savoury caramel apple....delicious.
I so agree about the edible souvenirs reigning supreme, I've recently returned from Belgium with a suitcase full of cheese, waffels and chocolate!
August 2, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterAlli
Melissa,

So true but thankfully my parents never subjected me to the torture of green bean caserole. And we can't forget the fruitcakes we always get for Christmas! Make a shelter out of them.
August 3, 2005 | Unregistered Commenterbrandon
Hi Alli - Hmmm, I didn't think to try it with fruit. Too bad you weren't around to give me your suggestions before the remnants of the gjetost met their fate in the bottom of my trash... I'll remember it for next time though!

Hi Brandon - I think there are fruitcakes in the back of our freezer that have been there since the mid-1980s... They're one of those things you can't possibly throw away because they were *gifts*, after all!
August 4, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa
I am laughing at your explanations of Norwegian foods. My parents are from Norway and these foods, except the Smash candy, were always in my parents house. Nøkkelost is wonderful. Not only on a piece of crisp bread but in a ham sandwich. The cheese part is very much like a firmer edam but the spices are what make it. You must use a cheese slicer and cut it into thin strips for the best taste.

The Gjetost is a very weird experience. I believe Gjetost actually means goat cheese. It is the peanutbutter of cheeses. I rarely eat it because I never really appreciated it but it is a wonderful addition to gravy. My father loves the stuff and he stuck a large chunk of it in the turkey gravy this past Thanksgiving. He eats it like most Norwegians I have known, on a single thin slice of bread.

The cod roe in a tube is wonderful. I can't eat a lot of it but an occasional spread of it on a jewish rhy is great.

One thing you must add to this list and is wonderful in a lunchbox is Sell's Liver Pate'. I hate liver of all sorts but this stuff I love. It is slightly similar to oscar meyer liver cheese but must better.

In general Norwegian food is bland and different shades of gray but these childhood foods are a great memory.
December 3, 2005 | Unregistered CommenterRuss Braaten
Hi Russ, glad to have brought back some fond childhood memories! I must admit I'm flabbergasted by your suggestion of adding the gjetost to gravy. It sounds bizarre enough to actually work. And I'll certainly keep my eye out for that liver pate next time I go. I may even try giving gjetost another try, they say it's an acquired taste, after all...
December 8, 2005 | Registered Commentermelissa

I feel like I must be insane or something, because even as an American (although Asian...would that help?), I simply ADORE Gjetost. It's not something I can have a lot of at once, admittedly (the really thin cheese slicer sees a lot of use whenever one of the blocks comes home), but I do love it whenever I have it. Oddly enough, I enjoy Marmite as well (and I think I'd enjoy Vegemite), along with herring and all sorts of the other foods that people don't like.

April 18, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterdromedaI m

My in-laws went to Norway a couple of years ago and came back with some brown cheese for me. When I tasted it, I didn't really know what to think. Then I decided to make cheese toast out of it. If you ever decide to try brown cheese again, you must try brown cheese toast. It is good, good, good.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRenee

Smash! are super addictive! I'm a Norwegian and I came across your chocolate salted caramel tart on pinterest, and I'm planning on serving it for some friends tonight :P

May 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnna

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