March 14, 2004

Gjetost: Freakish Norwegian Caramel Cheese

by peterb

I have a cheese problem.

My problem centers around the fact that the two best cheesemongers in town (Penn Mac and Whole Foods) are somewhat inconvenient for me to reach without planning. So I often find myself in the local supermarket, Giant Eagle, which purports to have a good selection of cheese. And they do: in the abstract, their selection is "ok." Nothing fabulous, but they often have cheeses that I would like to eat, especially if I haven't had time to pick up something great at Penn Mac.

However, for some reason that I don't fully comprehend, Giant Eagle wraps their cheese in a plastic that makes all of their cheese taste disgusting -- it has a penetrating, oily, plastic aroma that can manage to penetrate to the core of the stinkiest Stilton. Some middle-level manager probably had to go out and do hard research to locate a plastic that was this effective at completely ruining cheese. So I am caught in an infinite cycle wherein I am craving cheese, but I have no cheese, and I'm in the supermarket, and Giant Eagle has a type of cheese that I want, and I know that it will probably taste like rancid plastic but I still convince myself that somehow it won't taste bad this time, and I buy the cheese anyway, and I bring it home, and it tastes like plastic and I am sad and swear that I'll never do that again.

Since I don't seem to be able to break my habit of buying cheese at the supermarket when I'm craving it, I've developed a tactic designed to minimize the risk: only buy cheeses that were factory-wrapped, rather than cheeses cut and wrapped at the supermarket. These generally end up being not top-of-the-line cheeses, because of the way they are packaged and sold, but my logic is that it's less depressing to buy a cheap cheese that turns out to be not very good than it is to buy a superb stilton that tastes like plastic because of an incompetent cheesemonger's stinky packaging.

Following that tactic today led me to buy "gjetost," which I knew nothing about other than it is Norwegian and comes in a cute small square package.

Gjetost is...odd. I am not entirely convinced it is really cheese. I think it may actually be a very large piece of "Bit-o-honey" candy.


First impressions: medium-brown or dark tan, it has a consistency just a little softer than salt-water taffy, firm to the touch without being actually hard. The package recommended slicing off thin slices, so that's what I did. The odor was a distinct burnt caramel; the first taste is sweet, just beneath a level I'd consider cloying. The second, third, and fourth tastes are like that too.

So I'm eating this candy cheese thinking "this can't possibly be right," so I turned to the internet, which confirmed that, yes, this is indeed what gjetost is supposed to be like. It's a cow's and goat's milk cheese which is prepared such that some of the lactose caramelizes. One site suggested that it's common in Norway to enjoy it with a cup of coffee for breakfast. I happened to have just brewed a pot of coffee so I tried it: it didn't improve the experience substantially.

People describe gjetost as a "love it or hate it" experience. I don't love it or hate it. But I might give out slices to trick or treaters next Halloween.

Additional Resources

Remember: a life without cheese is not worth living.

Posted by peterb at March 14, 2004 07:46 PM | Bookmark This

I had the same reaction when I tried gjetost the first (and only) time. The remainder of my block sat in the fridge until they turned hard and I threw it away. Maybe it's better if you're actually in Norway.

Posted by Kristen at March 14, 2004 08:38 PM

Thanks for the link! It's always great to hear from fellow gjetost enthusiasts.

Posted by lengli at March 15, 2004 01:19 AM


Ah yes, the famous "hot dog in Yankee stadium" effect. I could see that.

(Maybe it's better if you're drinking aquavit?)

Idea for an article: foods that are only good when you're eating them "there," for interesting values of "there."

Posted by peterb at March 15, 2004 08:01 AM


Posted by Randi Kjome at August 13, 2004 11:49 PM

C'mon, people! Where is your sense of adventure? Just relax a bit, keep slicing the gjetost thin, keep eating it on thin toasted crackers, and remind yourself that it's all new people in a hundred years.

Gjetost is not for the timid, but then at one time neither were a few other tasty standbys in the culinary universe (oysters, limburger, shrimp, mushrooms).

Here's another idea for a food article: foods that didn't make much of an impression the first time you had them, but that NOW you love.

My heart goes out to peterb and his plastic-wrapped cheese problem. As someone once wrote, cheese is a living thing and plastic smothers it with chemicals. Why not assemble quotations to this effect from noted cheese experts (try using the store's own competitor's words -- Whole Foods)and sending these, along with your concerns, to the manager of the store. Have your friends do likewise. Stress the importance to the store of the young, cheese-eating demographic; that is, that group that now opts to buy most of its cheese from Whole Foods instead of Giant Eagle.

Just a thought. Cheese is worth a little ink and activism.

Bill Van Benschoten in cheese-friendly Santa Monica, CA

Posted by Bill Van Benschoten at May 8, 2006 09:34 AM

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