Weekend Feature: Norway's old cheese - Viking Viagra?

Have you heard of Norway's Gamalost (Old Cheese)? Powerful stuff!! It was originally made by the Vikings over 1000 years ago. They believed it had many medicinal properties. But we'll let Janice Nieder tell you what else she discovered: Have you heard of Norway's Gamalost (Old Cheese)? It was originally made by the Vikings over 1000 years ago. believed it had many medicinal properties. But we'll let Janice Nieder tell you what else she discovered:'Phewww! That stuff is nasty -- smells like my dog's bed, but my Grandpa loves it!' was a typical answer when I asked some teens in Balestand, Norway, if they ate Gamalost cheese. I had just heard about this cheese originally made by Vikings over 1000 years ago. They believed it had many medicinal properties and would nibble on it during long voyages to provide energy and prevent colds. They also plastered it on their wounds to aid healing. But its most popular benefit is extolled in early Viking sagas: Gamalost enhances one's sexual prowess. I decided to visit Norway's last remaining Gamalost creamery, which was only a fifteen-minute ferry ride along Sognefjord, the world's longest fjord. My destination was Vik, a village of colorful wooden homes dwarfed by the backdrop of the Vikafjellet Mountain. I meandered over to the Tine Cheese Center, which was created to preserve the making of this traditional cheese. The locals call it 'Old Cheese' from the days when the cheese was made in the summer, on the mountain dairy farms and took a very long time to mature. Skimmed cow's milk was left to sour, heated, and then the curds were placed in cloth-lined wooden boxes, wrapped in dried marsh grass, and the aging process would begin. Every other day, for many months, the dairy maids would pull the boxes out from under their beds, where the cheese was stored, and rub the cheese by hand to help spread the bacteria evenly. By Christmas the cheese had fermented to a brownish gold color and was ready to eat. Nowadays the same principles of production are used, but in the well-equipped modern dairy the aging process is reduced to about two weeks. There are many health benefits associated with Gamalost. It contains more than 50% protein and less than 1% fat. Also, the cheese contains significant amounts of Chitosan, a substance that is said to lower cholesterol levels. Even without the addition of sugar or salt the cheese is full of flavor. Which brings us to the great taste debate--this is not a cheese for wimps! Gamalost is a hard crumbly cheese with a very sharp, intense flavor that is not in vogue with the younger generation in Norway (who tend to prefer soft bland cheeses like edam). One story I heard attesting to the intensity of Gamalost's flavor was that when an old-timer was asked how Gamalost was made, he replied, 'Take some cheese, stuff it in an old sock, bury it in manure under the barn and when it is ready, it will crawl out.' However, there are many passionate defenders of this distinctive cheese. The King of Norway is one of Gamalost's biggest fans, and has even visited Tine for a private tasting. About 20 years ago, the Norwegian Old Cheese Club was formed and today boasts over two-thousand loyal members. And a quote from a local newspaper in 1996 said about Norway's Vebjorn Rodal, Olympic gold medal winner, 'The Golden boy was doped on 'Old Cheese' from home'. I was ready for the decisive taste test. First I tried crackers topped with a thin slice of tomato and Gamalost, then whole wheat bread spread with butter, Gamalost, and a dot of lingonberry jam. And I loved it! The assertive cheese with its earthy nutty flavor, worked with both savory and sweet additions. Granted, the cheese I tasted was only about two weeks old, and over time would become much more pungent. However, to retard the aging process, simply freeze the cheese and then cut off small pieces for daily consumption. And if it becomes too dry, marinate the Gamalost in port, aquavit, or brandy, for a few days, before serving. Without a doubt, Tines has a major marketing problem with trying to convert young Norwegians to jump on the Gamalost bandwagon. But, hey, with its Viagra-like claims, they would be lining up for it in the States. Printed with kind permission from Janice Nieder who is a specialty food consultant and freelance writer who covers the trifecta: food, travel, and culture. She is a member of the Slow Food San Francisco Convivium.


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