7:40am

Wed January 23, 2013
The Two-Way

Burning Cheese Closes Norwegian Road For Days

Originally published on Wed January 23, 2013 6:53 pm

It was probably a first for Norway when a truck trailer full of sweet goat cheese caught fire near the town of Narvik late last week, blocking a road tunnel. it took four days for firefighters to put out the flames. No one was hurt. Norwegian Broadcasting says the tunnel was so badly damaged that geologists are checking it for safety, and any lingering toxic gases.

Norwegian investigators found it wasn't just plain yellow cheese that caught fire - it was the Norwegian brown specialty 'brunost'. British cheesemongers The Cheese and Wine Shop Delicatessen point out most cheese is created from curds with the whey thrown out. In making brunost, which technically isn't cheese, the whey is kept and the curds are disposed of. The cheesemaker then adds milk and cream and boils the brunost until it's a "thick brown mass". The result is a sweet product with a hint of caramel. It's sticky, carmelized lactose - and it's really flammable.

That's just what Norwegian officials found out. The BBC talked to Kjell Bjoern Vinje, who observed, "I didn't know that brown cheese burns so well." The Guardian talked to police officer Viggo Berg, who says "this high concentration of fat and sugar is almost like petrol if it gets hot enough." Whey to go.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Norwegian TV probably said it best in their first reports from the seen of last week's goat cheese fire in a road tunnel in the Arctic.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That's right, a goat cheese fire. Call it the fondue heard round the world. The incident - and, Robert, it's the first of its kind in anyone's memory - occurred late last week near the city of Narvik. Twenty tons of brown cheese were on a truck when it ignited. It took four days to extinguish the blaze. Fortunately, no one was hurt but the road tunnel remains closed and will be for about a week. So far, no official word yet on what started the fire burning.

SIEGEL: So, what is this combustible brown cheese, we wondered? Are we safe? Does the U.N. know about this?

ROLLEIV SOLHOLM: Well, we call in Brunost.

BLOCK: That's Rolleiv Solholm, chief editor of the Norway Post in Oslo.

SOLHOLM: It's very unusual. I can't remember myself having heard ever that a load of brown cheese was caught fire in a tunnel.

SIEGEL: Brunost is unique to Norway, Solholm says. And creating the product requires several steps.

SOLHOLM: It is made by boiling over a long time cow's milk or goat's milk. And then it becomes more or less like a caramel substance. And it is then poured into containers that makes it usually a square block, like a brick.

BLOCK: Solholm says the brown cheese is a hit with tourists, who usually leave Norway with one of those bricks. It's served on rye crisp or bread, and sold around the world in gourmet cheese stores.

As to the cheese as a flammable substance...

SOLHOLM: Of course the thing that makes it burn for so long is the fact that it is a sugar-caramel substance, which of course would just keep on burning for days, you know.

SIEGEL: A spokesman for the Norwegian Public Roads Administration says that in his 15 years in the department, this incident was the first cheese-related fire to close a road. He says he didn't know cheese burned so well.

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BLOCK: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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