‘Yep, I’m telling you this for the truth,’ is what we say in the South when we want to convince our listeners that whatever tall tale we’re telling is the truth and not just another short story about our cousin’s husband’s sister’s niece (you know–she was the one who went you-know-where with you-know-who).
I digress…but I’m telling you this for the truth. I have no cherished childhood memories of Jarlsberg cheese. Cheddar? Check. Pimiento cheese? Certainly. Cream cheese, jack cheese, cottage cheese, E-Z Cheese? Sure. Even goat, Gouda, and Epoisses, in later years—plus one infamous episode with Stinking Bishop, which still haunts my tastebuds whenever I smell road kill languishing in the summer sun—but no Jarlsberg.
But wait—I do have one sort-of Jarlsberg memory: in the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, “Nate” (actor Adrien Grenier) offers “Andy” (actress Anne Hathaway) a grilled cheese sandwich after a grueling day in the office. She’s so aggravated with her day that she waves his masterpiece away, saying she’s not hungry, and Nate says, “there’s like $8 worth of Jarlsberg in there!”
That was my only frame of reference, until recently.
In November 2011, I had the wonderful opportunity to tag along on the Eat Write Retreat Field Trip that explored the food culture of Asheville, North Carolina. I work for one of the companies that sponsored the event, and sponsorship perks included a seat at the table for a weekend of eating and talking (otherwise known as gomming & yowing, in the South) and eating and drinking and eating and visiting farms and eating and learning about the city’s food culture and eating and—well, you get the idea.
It’s Jarlsberg, y’all—a user-friendly cheese developed in Jarlsberg, Norway in the mid-1850s
Turns out, Jarlsberg USA was also a sponsor, and they sent a giant wheel of Jarlsberg to be divvied up among field trip participants. It was a small group, by design, so the wedges of cheese turned out to be something to write home about (or lug home, for those traveling by air). In fact, Asheville might have been renamed Jarlsville that weekend, in honor of the mighty cheese wheel that reclined in chilled comfort until it was time for the divvy-nation and dispersal.
Anyway, I thought the Jarlsberg was pretty darn good (PDG). Sort of Swiss-like with the holes and all, but not exactly. And I had a distant memory of a recipe that might just make the most of my new cheese whiz: natte, a cheese-bread I used to make all the time when I was in high school and college, back when nobody told me I didn’t know how to bake bread, so I baked a lot of it.
Natte was my favorite recipe; you made a simple yeast dough into which you kneaded shredded cheese, shaped it into a braid (that’s what ‘natte’ means in French), and baked. The recipe called for gruyere, but that was fancier than my mom would add to her shopping list, so I made do with cheddar, which tasted PDG to me.
Fast forward 20 years, and I wondered what natte would be like with Jarlsberg. Any historical enmity between France and Norway that might preclude culinary civilities? I decided to risk it.
My natte recipe is not original; it’s from the Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook* that my aunt gave my mom for Christmas circa 1980. Somehow, the idea of experiencing “international foods” (guided by that nice lady who smiled out at me from the baking aisle in the grocery store) seemed faintly exotic, with just a whiff of secret spices from faraway places with strange sounding names. I was hooked, and I set out to see the world, one recipe at a time.
Fast-forward 30+ years, and I’m just taking a crusty brown braided loaf of Jarlsberg natte out of the oven.**
My kitchen smells as good as it did the first time I tried the recipe, and now I realize I DO have a special Jarlsberg memory—it’s just taken it a little while to come full circle.
*Many thanks to Betty Crocker’s International Cookbook; published in 1980 by General Mills, Inc.; of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
**Full disclosure: Jarlsberg USA is sponsoring a contest for blog entries about favorite Jarlsberg memories (old & new). The prize is a paid admission to the upcoming Eat Write Retreat weekend in Washington, DC–and boy, howdy, would I like to win that!