3,000-year-old pot contains burned cheese residue

A clay pot discovered during an archaeological excavation near Silkeborg in central Jutland, Denmark, in 2012 has the residue of 3,000-year-old burned cheese coating the interior. The pot was found upside down in a garbage pit. Museum Silkeborg archaeologists were excited by the find because the pot was intact and in near mint condition, a rare find for a Bronze Age vessel made between 777 B.C. and 588 B.C. They didn’t realize until they cleaned the soil off of it that the crusty remains of some whitish yellow food substance were stuck to the inside walls.

The color and texture were not something the archaeologists had seen before. Charred grains and seeds are a more common sight in ancient cookware — the ever-tricky porridge has been getting burned to the bottom of pots for thousands of years — but the yellowish film was a mystery. Samples of the crusty substance were subjected to macrofossil analysis at the Moesgaard Museum in the hope it might identify any plants, meat or fish. The results were inconclusive. The test found the substance was a foamy, vitrified material, possible the residue of oil or sugar.

Museum curators sent samples to the Danish National Museum next, where chemist Mads Chr. Christensen used mass spectrometry to identify the substance. He was able to narrow it down to a product made with the fat of a ruminant, likely bovine. With no similar sample to compare the mass spectrometry results, he wasn’t able to get more specific than that.

“The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter,” says [Museum Silkeborg curator Kaj F.] Rasmussen.

“It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what’s left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet,” he says.

When things don’t go according to plan and the cheese burns to the pot, the smell is pungent, to put it charitably, and attempts to scrape the foul crust off the clay pot doomed to failure. It’s easy to picture a Bronze Age cheesemaker dumping the whole mess into the trash.

I’m not familiar with brown Norwegian whey cheese. It sounds … interesting. Has anybody tried this delicacy?


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Comment by RMW
2016-09-17 22:15:48

What a cheesy find…… (snicker)

Comment by Marnie
2016-09-17 22:25:29

Brown cheese?
I had enough trouble dealing with the knowledge that cheddar is really white!

Comment by angela
2016-09-17 22:44:04

It sounds like messmör.


Comment by Vicky Johnson
2016-09-17 22:58:33

Thanks for the great post…Love this cheese we get Ski Queen Gjetost Cheese. It has goat milk in it and is not like any other cheese. Melts in your mouth and can help settle your stomach if needed. Takes a while to get to the point of enjoying the taste and unfamiliar texture. Enjoyed the history and background. Thanks

Comment by Barbara
2016-09-17 23:24:14

I get a Norwegian (I think) white and creamy cheese that you fry up so that it’s crusty, creamy, and warm. It’s a mild and slightly sweet/nutty cheese. Really good! It’s in most supermarkets and, of course, I can’t think of the brand name at the moment. When I first read the article, I thought maybe it would be the same kind of cheese.

Comment by bort
2016-09-18 01:18:34

mmm… burned cheese residue…


Comment by Björn
2016-09-18 02:00:42

Wikipedia entry of this kind of cheese

Comment by Alpinus Bovinus, Esq.
2016-09-18 02:33:36

Cheese analogues (more widely known as cheese alternatives) are, let’s face it, not really an alternative. I am not an expert for cheese, nor am I from Scandinavia: Ricotta (i.e. “recooked”), for example, is a whey cheese made from milk whey left over from the production of (hard) cheese. Usually, some additional milk is necessary in order to get the process started:

Like other whey cheeses, it is made by adding milk and coagulating (milk and citric acid play a role) the proteins that remain after the casein has been used to make cheese, notably albumin and globulin, and skimming them off. The stuff could, among other possible procedures, then be compressed and stored in order to age/ mature.

However, Ricotta al forno might come rather close to the stuff from Norway. Also, the leftovers of the cheese making leftovers, i.e. the ‘sour whey’, could be reused to additionally feed animals. Cheeses like Mozzarella or Pecorino are seemingly produced similarly, but obviously with other parameters. Danish Cream-cheese, I am guessing, is made by adding cream instead of milk.

Comment by Josephine
2016-09-18 03:33:59

We have the same caramelised, brown cheese in Sweden, where it’s called ‘mesost’: https://sv.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesost. I never tried it myself, since it’s a specialty of the region of Sweden that Borders Norway. However, a similar product, which is the pre-product of the cheese, is a type of butter, which is very rich and very creamy. In Swedish it’s called ‘messmör’, and is a stable of some households, to spread on bread (‘smör’ is Swedish for ‘butter’). I tried it once, as a child, where it was served in the school cafeteria. It has a slightly caramelised smell, so my sweet tooth thought it seemed promising. One taste was all it took, however, and I still sometimes gag from the thought of it. But, as I mentioned, many Scandinavians swear by it, so don’t take my word for it :)

Comment by Edward Goldberg
2016-09-18 07:40:34

Many years ago, I had duck roasted with Gjestost (aka Brunost) cheese, prepared by a Norwegian-American friend–an improbably delicious and complex dish. Did they have ducks in Jutland 3,000 years ago, I wonder?

Comment by Evil Cheese
2016-09-18 09:52:36

I have the remains of a one pound brick of gjetost in my fridge. It is about four years old. Still tasty and in good condition, not dried out that is. It con be founf in specialty shops in the States.

Comment by Alpinus Bovinus, Esq.
2016-09-18 09:53:48

Without reasonable doubt, there were ducks in Jutland. As you have seen and tasted it, Edward, would you say that Gjetost reminds you at least a bit of Ricotta al forno (here, with some pasta instead of duck) ?

“The production of ricotta in the Italian peninsula is old, dating back to the Bronze Age. In the second millennium BC, ceramic vessels called milk boilers started to appear frequently and were apparently unique to the peninsula. Ceramic milk boilers were still used by Apennine shepherds to make ricotta in the 19th century AD.”

I wonder, therefore, if the ‘milk boilers’, where they wanted to have it ‘al forno‘, were afterwards directly used for the ‘forno’, and if the Italian boilers looked similar to the one from Jutland.

Comment by Renee Yancy
2016-09-18 13:07:22

Such an interesting post! Thank you. You always bring it!

Comment by Edward Goldberg
2016-09-19 03:07:17

Actually, ricotta al forno is quite different than gjetost since it is not caramelized but baked after it is already set in forms. I have a largish chunk in my refrigerator (from Sardinia) that was smoked after baking, which is an interesting variant.

Comment by dearieme
2016-09-19 19:18:58

I first bought some if this cheese when I was a fresher, and it was my turn to offer cheese and coffee after dinner to a bunch of my new friends. Generously, they forgave me.

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