In a small town on the Sognefjord, expert cheesemakers are continuing a tradition that’s believed to date back more than a thousand years. The village of Vik, population 3,100, is home to the world’s only dairy producing Gamalost – literally “old cheese.”
A pungent, golden-brown cheese with a crusty texture and a strong flavor, Gamalost is known for its health-promoting characteristics. Made from skimmed cow’s milk with no other ingredients added, Gamalost contains more than 50 percent protein and just 1 percent fat. It also contains chitosan, a substance that has many beneficial properties, including lowering cholesterol. The Vikings, who fueled themselves for their expeditions in part by eating Gamalost, also considered the cheese an aphrodisiac.
Gamalost was once a staple of the Norwegian diet, in large part because it could be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration. But because of the difficult production process, the tradition of making it now lives on only at the TINE dairy in Vik, which produces about 150 to 200 tons of Gamalost per year and has also developed a spreadable version. Norwegian authorities have even granted the brand Gamalost frå Vik special protected status because of its importance as a piece of the country’s cultural heritage.
Although the tradition of making Gamalost is an old one, the name of the cheese comes not from its long history but from the length of the aging process. Traditionally, after the milk had been soured, the curds were heated in copper cauldrons, and then transferred to wooden moulds lined with jute or linen. After a few days the cheese was wrapped in dried marsh grass in preparation for aging. Every other day during the maturation process, the cheese had to be rubbed by hand to faciliate the absorption of the necessary bacteria.
These days, modern dairy production methods have reduced the aging process from an entire summer to 12 to 14 days. Still, the principles of making Gamalost remain the same, with much of the work done by hand to obtain the best quality and aroma.
Its health benefits notwithstanding, Gamalost is not to everyone’s taste. The cheese continues to mature after production, so its strong flavor and aroma intensify over time. Just the mention of Gamalost will cause many people to wrinkle their noses. But served the way the connoisseurs eat it — on a slice of bread with a dollop of jam, honey, clotted cream, or maple syrup — it’s really quite tasty. Some Norwegians even marinade Gamalost in port, sherry, brandy, or aquavit.
If you’re traveling in the Sognefjord region and want to learn more about Gamalost (and maybe even brave a taste), stop by the café at the TINE dairy, just a block or so up the hill from the passenger boat dock in Vik.
Gamalost even has its own festival, which takes place in Vik over several days in late May or early June.