What is the Secret Recipe of the Jarlsberg Cheese? I Visited the Cheese Bank to Find Out!

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The Norwegian Jarlsberg cheese is a true citizen of the world. Recently, I visited Ostebanken in Norway, Tine’s cheese bank, to learn more about the origin of Jarlsberg, what makes it so unique, and why it has such an international appeal. While regular Jarlsberg is stored for ninety days, Jarlsberg Reserve has a minimum of twelve months aging, but I even got to taste the three- and five-years-old versions! I can tell you, that’s quite different from the Jarlsberg cheese we all know so well.

Three- and five-years-old Jarlsberg Cheese
Three- and five-years-old Jarlsberg Cheese

World of Jarlsberg

In January this year, I was supposed to go to New York together with the Jarlsberg team to speak with American chefs who use Jarlsberg in their restaurants. From Italian-American pizzerias, where they are familiar with the creamy Norwegian cow’s milk cheese, to eateries where they had yet to see a cheese wheel from Norway! It would have been great for me to return to the Big Apple, which I last visited in 2012. Unfortunately, I had already booked a Bangkok trip and could not take part. Instead, throughout 2018, I will be talking to Norwegian chefs who cook with Jarlsberg and I invite you to join along into the World of Jarlsberg. In order to prepare for that, I had to learn more about Norway’s export treasure.

Ostebanken – The Cheese Bank

I met up with Ketil Haddeland – a dairy engineer, a cheese judge, and the director of International Production at Tine. The location was Kulinarisk Akademi in Maridalen, along the Aker River in Oslo. That’s where you find the cheese bank – Ostebanken. Although the name makes it sound like some vast underground cellar, with a large, heavy vault door to protect the precious content, the cheese bank is actually quite small. What makes it so special, though, is that it’s one of only two storage facilities of Jarlsberg’s three- and five-years-old reserve cheeses. The second one is situated at Jæren – my home turf. These cheese gems are mainly reserved for restaurants and commercial kitchens, but if you visit the Sagene branch of Kulinarisk Akademi, they might just let you buy some. Check out the highlighted Instagram story Ostebanken on the Instagram account @JarlsbergNorge to see my visit!

Dairy engineer and cheese judge Ketil Haddeland
Dairy engineer and cheese judge Ketil Haddeland
Ostebanken – The Cheese Bank
Ostebanken – The Cheese Bank

The Short History of Jarlsberg

Jarlsberg was invented in 1956 by professor Ole Martin Ystgaard and his team of students at the Dairy Institute of what is today known as the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Fun fact: The Norwegian word for a creamery, which is the location of the cheesemaking within a dairy, is ysteri. The fact that this professor was named Ystgaard, is like taken out of a Donald Duck comic book. He was basically called professor Cheeseville.

Through their work with a new type of bacteria, the professor and his students somewhat accidentally created a new spinoff category of cheeses – the goutaler. As the name indicates, it is a mix of the well-known Gouda and Emmental cheeses. The production process of Jarlsberg is similar to that of Gouda, but the cheese looks more similar to an Emmental. Most Americans refer to Emmental only as Swiss cheese – characterized by its distinct holes, or eyes, which is the technical term.

The name Jarlsberg was selected as a historic reference to the cheese production that took place in the old Jarlsberg Countship – today known as Vestfold county. Export to the US, UK, Canada, and Australia began as early as 1962. Tine, which was known only as Norske Meierier (Norwegian Dairies) at that time, sent their sales representatives out to conquer the world with a cheese they expected would bode well abroad. They were right.

Aged Jarlsberg cheeses stored in the cheese bank
Aged Jarlsberg cheeses stored in the cheese bank

Why is Jarlsberg Cheese so Popular?

What makes Jarlsberg so popular with Americans, Brits, Canadians, Australians, and, of course, Scandinavians, is the creamy consistency, and the mild, slightly sweet, nutty flavor with a very subtle salt level. Jarlsberg is a cheese that is easy to like, both from a taste perspective and visually. It has the highly recognizable holes of a Swiss cheese, but with a softer and less dry texture, and a sweeter and less sharp taste. You can eat it alone, paired with a tasty drink, on a sandwich, and even melted in a toast or as the topping of lasagna, and, of course, pizza.

Five-years-old Jarlsberg turned into crunchy crisps on a potato purée
Five-years-old Jarlsberg turned into crunchy crisps on a potato purée

How Popular is the Jarlsberg Cheese?

In Norway, a country of barely 5 million people, we consume 9 million kilos of Jarlsberg each year. Americans beat us, though, with almost 12 million kilos consumed. To be fair, they do have a couple more million inhabitants to share that gigantic cheese wheel. However, I find it extremely impressive that a Norwegian cheese can be found in more than 90% of grocery stores in the USA. That’s almost 34.000 cheese outlets! The Jarlsberg cheese has even starred in popular American movies like the Devil Wears Prada, the Sopranos series, and on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Cheese heaven
Cheese heaven

What is the Secret Recipe for Jarlsberg?

You expect me to reveal the secret? I have sworn on my life not to tell anyone! Ok, then, I probably got the safe version of the story from Mr. Haddeland. The secret ingredient of Jarlsberg is actually something called Propionibacterium shermanii. To quote Wikipedia: Propionibacterium is a gram-positive, anaerobic, rod-shaped genus of bacteria named for their unique metabolism: They are able to synthesize propionic acid by using unusual transcarboxylase enzymes. Simple, eh? In other words: it’s a particular bacterial culture.

Obviously, Tine has created their own unique culture of this bacteria. In fact, there’s a factory in Trondheim that is dedicated to only producing this culture around the clock. Every hour, between 1500 and 2000 ml of freshly produced bacteria culture is ready. That may not sound like much, but 100 ml, which contains 50 billion bacteria, is enough to produce 1000 kilos of Jarlsberg cheese. Once a month, they ship boxes of these tiny bottles filled with precious bacterial culture to each of their dairies, while also storing some in their backup vault along with the mother culture.

This bacterial culture is what gives Jarlsberg its characteristic, nutty and sweet flavor.

The famous Jarlsberg holes!
The famous Jarlsberg holes!

Why Does Jarlsberg Have Holes?

The bacterial culture Propionibacterium shermanii is also responsible for making the round holes in the Jarlsberg cheese. A dairy engineer would never refer to them as holes, by the way, but rather as eyes. First, another bacterial culture is added – lactic acid bacteria – which eats the milk sugar (lactose) and breaks it down into milk acid. This acid is exactly what the Propionibacterium shermanii loves! Once digested, they, in turn, produce a carbon dioxide (CO2) byproduct, which causes bubbles to form in the cheese. Isn’t that a lovely symbiosis between two bacterial cultures? A love story of sorts. This process also makes sure that Jarlsberg is naturally lactose-free. Allergics rejoice!

The longer a Jarlsberg cheese matures in high temperatures, the larger the eyes will become. If you just left it long enough in a warm environment, it would actually blow up to a football, and eventually crack open! Since temperature control is vital to producing high-quality Jarlsberg cheese, though, you will never find holes with a diameter much bigger than 15 to 20 mm.

On this three-years-old Jarlsberg cheese, you can see the protein crystals that have formed
On this three-years-old Jarlsberg cheese, you can see the protein crystals that have formed

What Does 3- and 5-Years Old Jarlsberg Taste Like?

We started by tasting the three-years-old Jarlsberg cheese.

– You always start with the youngest and mildest cheese, Haddeland explained.

If not, you risk that the more mature cheese completely overpowers the younger one. That makes sense, and who am I to argue with a cheese judge, anyway?

The taste of the three-years-old Jarlsberg cheese came as a total surprise. Much more pungent tasting than a regular Jarlsberg Reserve. Texture-wise it was more dry, reminding me of Comté or Gruyère, but not as hard and grainy as a Parmesan cheese. Still creamy, and with an even more distinct nutty-sweet taste to it. At this point of maturing, some of the liquid has begun to come out of the cheese (explains why it’s drier) and the proteins have started to crystallize, forming areas of crunchy white spots that feel a bit like sea salt. Delicious!

The five-years-old Jarlsberg had an even sharper taste to it, but it was still soft and creamy. When I studied the cheese inside its packaging, I could see that it was floating around in so much of that delectable cheese liquid. I asked Haddeland what the oldest Jarlsberg cheese he had tasted was like.

– I once tasted a 9-years-old Jarlsberg cheese. It was fantastic and almost orange in its color.

Stay tuned for more exciting Jarlsberg stories later on!

Disclaimer

This is paid promotion by Tine.

Anders Husa

I am Anders Husa – a foodie living in Oslo. I eat at the best restaurants in Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm and the major food destinations in the world. I share my foodie stories here.

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