The Cheese of the Vikings: A Long Tradition Lives on at a Single Dairy in Norway

Gamalost_frå_VikIn 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.

Published on February 22, 2013.

28 thoughts on “The Cheese of the Vikings: A Long Tradition Lives on at a Single Dairy in Norway”

  1. I am going to fly from England to Norway to buy this cheese!
    Love it – wish they would export it!

    1. I hope you get to Vik soon to get some gamalost! It’s definitely a rare commodity outside that small region.

    1. Hi James,

      This blog is unaffiliated with the gamalost dairy in Vik, so you’d have to contact them. (the page is in Norwegian, but there’s a link to their Facebook page, as well as a phone number and the e-mail address of the dairy manager). However, I seem to recall being told that gamalost doesn’t travel well; it’s not even available in all parts of Norway. Then of course there’s the question of importation laws in Australia.

      Good luck!
      Annika / Real Scandinavia

      1. I find it hard to believe that it doesn’t travel well, considering what I’ve learned in this fascinating article. I’m going to see if our top-notch grocery chain, famous for bringing in foods from all over the world, can get some. Their cheese selection is outstanding, and they might be proud to do it.

  2. I have no idea if it really goes back to Viking times (I don’t think there’s any direct evidence for this), but I do know that it’s well worth a taste!

      1. Annika, there seems to be a contradiction between the idea that the cheese doesn’t travel well yet in the article it states that, “Gamalost was once a staple of the Norwegian diet, in large part because it could be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration.” Those two statements seem at odds, and if this truly was Viking food, it would need to travel well, and be able to keep for long periods without refrigeration. Perhaps the newer process, with shorter aging, makes a big difference. Or is there some other explanation?

        1. You’re right about the apparent contradiction, Ron, but I honestly don’t know. Regarding the “doesn’t travel well” thing, I thought I remembered people at the dairy saying something to that effect and explaining that that was one reason the cheese is so localized. But I could be wrong — it’s a few years since I visited (and since I wrote this article). The statement from the article about it being able to be stored for long periods without refrigeration is confirmed. I don’t know if the newer process has affected anything. From what other commenters say it certainly sounds as though it used to be imported to the US, anyway. But as far as I’m aware, it isn’t currently, but that may be because it’s not produced in great enough amounts.

      2. There could be a big difference between Storing well and traveling well. when stored, the conditions are controlled to a point that it helps prevent spoilage. in traveling, the conditions are less than ideal, to say the least.

  3. My father told of a shipment of Gamalost that came in to New York by ship years ago. Upon inspecting it the customs agents determined that the cheese must have gone bad and threw it all out.

    1. So, it travels just fine, until it encounters bureaucratic nonsense.

      Sounds disturbingly plausible, and could resolve the apparent contradiction.

      1. A friend of mine was taking it back to Israel. His luggage was investigated and the conclusion was that this had to be explosives. They cut the cheese to small pieces. He tried to explain, but was not released before he had eaten half the cheese. Luckily he got the rest of the cheese with him.

  4. My dad used to buy it in a Norwegian deli in Brooklyn. To call it pungent is being kind. We called it stinky cheese and I would say it makes Limburger smell like French perfume. Our aunt once threw it out thinking it went bad. Dad was from Vesteralen and it was a special treat for him.

  5. Is anyone willing to share the actual recipe including the process? I have made my own cheeses from cows and goats milk for several years. I would like to give this a shot.

    1. You would have to obtain the culture, which is protected by the government of Norway.
      Not gonna happen.

  6. My grandfather, the last of the family born in the old country, ate Limburger instead (and once got into trouble for eating it in the house when Grandmother had company.) I have seen it for sale in Chicago once, at the late, great Wikstrom’s Deli in Andersonville. ‘Twas tasty!

    1. Thank you for sharing! So this cheese also is good for hypertension as an ACE inhibitor. I am going to see if this is imported into Canada. If not, perhaps it could be shipped here via postal express from Norway. There must be a place in Canada to find it.

  7. Is it available in Bergen? I’ll be there next week, I’d love to try some.

    1. Hi Lauren,

      I should think you’d be able to find gamalost somewhere in Bergen, though unfortunately I don’t know any specific places that carry it. I would try one of the larger supermarkets; if they don’t have it, perhaps somewhere at the deli counter will have a better idea of where to look. Also, at the fish market by the harbor there are usually other products besides fish for sale, and I know I’ve seen some cheeses there, although I don’t specifically recall ever seeing gamalost. Might be worth checking just in case. Good luck!

  8. Yes, it travels well. Yes, you can get it online. Yes, it has a strong odor. Yes, it is good.
    I’ve served it in Ventura, CA.

  9. Just got a shipment today from Norway. Had a taste and I can say it’s not for the weak-of-stomach. The taste is powerful, as is its perfume. I ordered it off of Ebay…and I’m happy I did. It is a singular experience.

  10. Having eaten Gammelost for the last fifty years, I find it most enjoyable. See below about eating hints. When I was young there were several makers cheeses available. Alas, we’re now down to only one. There are two processes for making the cheese as I understand it. The current manufacturer uses the newer and shorter of the two processes and thus it has little fragrance and a very mild flavor. I really prefer the older, longer process which really brings out the best the cheese has to offer. If you take the current cheese and allow it to sit in the fridge for a year or several months on the shelf it begins to take on more favorable characteristics. When it comes to eating this cheese, there are a few rules. Don’t smell it until you get used to it. Don’t carve off a slice as if it were swiss or cheddar. Do hoard it since it’s nearly as precious as gold. This cheese has a very narrow line between ‘oh this is great’ and ‘man this is crap!’ If you slice off a hunk like it was cheddar, you’ll find that it is the most bitter tasting, grainy assault your senses have ever endured. On the other hand, if you grab a saltine cracker and spread a smear about the size of a dime on top, you’ll find an entirely different experience. The taste is actually very nutty, almost like eating peanuts without the crunch. With this cheese, less is really more. Use less and less until you find a more pleasing taste and eliminate the bitter ammoniac flavors. As it dries out over a year or so, it loses much of its fragrance but increases the nicer flavors. The small piece (150grams) you can obtain from the tine dairy at this time, comes very soft and somewhat sticky and will last me a week or two if I eat it voraciously every day. Otherwise it can last me several months. I’ve shared it with a number of people who absoultely detested the stuff. I had them explain their experiences and requested they have one last go at it. As a result, I’ve made converts of every single one of them. Years ago, I passed a neighborhood grocery south of Longmont Colorado. On the sign was advertised Gammelost. Admittedly, this is the only time I’ve ever seen the name on a reader board. I whipped a youey and stepped in to see if I could get a wedge or two from the old style wheels. The owner had ordered a wheel but instead had received a case which is four wheels and he had no idea how he would ever sell it. I explained how I enjoyed it and then made my way out the door with an entire wheel for a very reasonable price. See rule three about hoarding. I continued to enjoy this wheel for a couple years afterwards including sharing it with my family. I do need to appologize since I got hungry for some gammelost while I was writing this and had to stop to enjoy my favorite cheese in the middle of this post.
    The following message is found on Tines’ package along with a rough translation.

    legg pa ei tynn skive gamalost pa flatbrod top med smor eller romme og litt tyttebaersyltetoy.

    Place a thin slice of old cheese on a flatbread, top with butter or cream and some lingonberry jam. (cranberry jam works real well also)

    Tine Gamelost er ein hard muggost med roter heilt tilbake til vikingtida. Namnet har osten fatt fordi den fra gammalt av vart lagra i lang tid pa stolane. Gamalosten skal vere lys gyllenbrun i fargen, massen skal vere saftig og grov og kunne skjerast med kniv. Sja for forslag til opskrifter.

    Tine Gamelost is a hard cheese with roots all the way back to the Viking age. The name has the name of the cheese because it was old for a long time stored on the chairs. The old cheese should be light golden brown in color, the mass must be juicy and coarse and can be sliced with a knife. See for recipe suggestions.

    I find that a sleeve of saltine crackers, a jar of goosegrease, a block of gammelost and a jar of lingonberries, go oh so very nicely together. A cracker of goosegrease, one with a little lingonberry and one with gammelost, around and around in a circle. A fine meal. You can replace the crackers with buttered bread for something more substantial.

    Nyt! (enjoy)

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