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On the Hunt for Gamalost Cheese, Norway’s ‘Viking Viagra’

Cheesemakers are riffing on the mythic "old cheese" with hopes to make it part of the Norwegian diet again.

Until I accidentally stumbled on a story about Kraftkar , I believed Norwegian cheese to start and stop at Jarlsberg—Scandinavia, after all, isn’t exactly synonymous with cheese production the same way Switzerland or the Netherlands are. It turns out, in fact, that Norway produces some of the world’s best cheeses; in 2016, Kraftkar, a blue cheese produced by Tingvollost dairy in Møre og Romsdal, won both the best cheese of the year award and the Champion of Champions award for the best cheese ever tasted at the World Cheese Awards . But while Kraftkar may have launched my Norwegian cheese obsession, it was gamalost which sealed my fate.

Gamalost—or “old cheese”—is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most unusual cheeses: A hard, crumbly cake marbled with “cat hair”-like strands produced by a special mold. It’s also among Europe’s oldest cheeses, a food that wasn’t just eaten but extolled for both its healing properties and its ability to boost the sexual prowess of men, a talent which earned gamalost the moniker “Viking Viagra.” But, while gamalost was once fairly ubiquitous, a foodstuff first produced by family-owned farms on Norway’s the west coast for local consumption and, more recently by larger industrialized farms, only one commercial gamalost dairy has survived changing Norwegian tastes: TINE Meieriet Vik .

It’s not hard to understand why gamalost consumption has declined over the years. The pungent, brownish cheese has a taste that’s been compared to such appetizing flavors as “a dog’s bed” and “old socks” . While some, supposedly including King Harald V, remain fiercely loyal to gamalost, younger generations are turning away from “old cheese” in favor of varieties that more closely resemble, well, cheese. Gamalost, though, a mythological and historical marvel, isn’t giving up the fight so easily. Gamalost fra Vik (Gamalost from the town of Vik) has earned the EU’s labeled Protected Designated Origin label in recognition of its role in Norway’s traditional food heritage, and at the 2018 World Cheese Awards competition held in Bergen, it was awarded with a bronze medal.

Hunting for Gamalost, Past and Present

Wending my way through lower Norway in a rented Mini Cooper, I gorged on every Norwegian cheese I could find—the soft, gamey, caraway flavored pultost, the decadent whey cheese brunost, the semi-hard cumin and clove nøkkelost—but gamalost remained elusive. And the more I learned about it, the more my obsession grew; I had become a stalker of all things “old cheese.”

The name gamalost actually refers not to the cheese’s historic age but to the aging process needed to mature skimmed cow’s milk curds into cheese, which, legend has it, traditionally required wrapping them in dried marsh grass or hay and placing them in a cloth-lined wooden box under the bed of a dairymaid who, for months, regularly rubbed the cheese to evenly spread the bacteria. In at least one version of the myth , virgins are attributed with producing not just the most divinely flavored gamalost, but the most sexually potent version of Viking Viagra money could buy.

But “old cheese” could just as easily refer to gamalost’s pedigree, a heritage likely more than a thousand years old. Since Olav Johan-Olsen first claimed in 1905 that he’d identified a reference to gamalost in Njal’s Saga , an Icelandic Viking chronicle written around 1280 AD, it’s been widely accepted as proof of the cheese’s Viking origins. He backed up his argument with corroborating evidence from the Saga of the Sworn Brothers , in which two enemies sit for a meal with “a large quantity of old cheese,” and archaeological evidence of sour milk cheese found in 1885 at the original site of Njal’s original farm.

If you take the opinion of Norwegian botanist Ove Fosså in his contribution to Milk: Beyond the Dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 , however, gamalost’s Viking origins, while convincing, are fictional. He points instead to a 1555 AD Nordic history by Olaus Magnus as the first true reference to gamalost. “Although they see, how it is filled with maggots, they get used to it, and appreciate it,” wrote Magnus appealingly of the “old cheese.” Whatever the true date of the cheese’s discovery, most, including Oydis Kristine Flateby, the Dairy Manager at TINE Meiriet Vik, have no doubt it most likely has historical roots in the Viking age.” And it’s likely that some of those roots go back to the town of Vik, itself, a hamlet in Norway’s western fjordlands. According to Flateby, dairy production began early here, in part because of harsh winters that impacted the ability to grow of food. “Cheese and butter production was important,” she says, and “the locals still appreciate the cheese and the dairy as a part of their community.”

It’s a love of “old cheese” that is most clear each June during the Gamalostfestivalen , a four day celebration of gamalost and its role in Vik’s past and present. Whereas from October to May Gamalost fra Vik is crafted at the dairy by 12 dedicated employees who handle each rind of cheese no fewer than 11 times before packing and shipping, during the Gamalostfestivalen, says Flateby, they honor the cheese by preparing it using a traditional, open-air method and sharing it with the crowd.

For her part, despite the decline in gamalost production and consumption over the years, Flateby is hopeful about the future not just because of a revived interest in heritage and slow foods, but because of the unique health benefits of Gamalost fra Vik. Indeed, gamalost’s use in healing over the centuries isn’t just a coincidence—this stuff is a superfood of epic proportions, with a substantial presence of peptides and vitamin K2 . Plus, unlike most strong, rapidly maturing cheeses, gamalost is high and protein and low in fat. The secret, says nutrition scientist Siv Borghild Skeie, is in the Mucor mucedo mold which is added to the skimmed-milk cheese after being cooked in acid whey. “The proteolytic pattern of the mold is unique, giving the cheese its particular strong flavor,” she says. “To my knowledge this mold is rarely used in other cheese varieties.”

Back at the Gamalost fra Vik dairy, they’re coming up with new ways to feature the ancient cheese while playing off of 21st century health consciousness and modern culinary trends in recipes such as oven-dried gamalost chips, salad croutons, and sprinkles for fresh fruit or ice cream. “We believe that the combination of its unique nutritional profile and taste can be a way to make this cheese a part of [the Norwegian] diet again,” she says.

Gamalost found

I finally found gamalost not in a cheese shop or market, but laid out among the breakfast smorgasbord of a Northern European hotel chain, the Scandic, in the city of Bergen. The stately rind stood several inches off the table unmarred; no one had yet succumb to its siren call. As I carefully cutting a modest slice through the spindly “cat hair-like” mold, the cheese crumbled around my knife. I scooped it all onto a plate and hastily retreated to my table. ‘Finally,’ I thought. ‘Finally.’

Though gamalost is traditionally eaten on buttered bread or salted crackers and topped with sour cream and cranberry jelly or syrup, my first bite was naked: just me and the cheese I’d been tracking for weeks. I wish I could say I loved the flavor of gamalost; I didn’t. Honestly, I didn’t even like it. But at its core old cheese is about more than taste—it’s centuries of tradition, centuries of innovation, centuries of survival and that? That’s something worth loving.

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