Do You Juusto?
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Jim Klousia 0
Thousands of miles from where it originated hundreds of years ago, a cheese once made from reindeer’s milk is today one of the signature cheeses of Wisconsin. Crafted at more than a half dozen cheese factories in the state, Juustoleipa, (pronounced YOOsto- LAY-pa) is a party mainstay, warmed on a griddle and served as an appetizer.
Often labeled as Bread Cheese or Juusto, the cheese is sold as a flat rectangle or square, and when warmed, imparts a squeaky note and mild, buttery flavor. Its splotchy brown crust—a result of actually being baked after production—is a hallmark of the cheese. After pressing curds into blocks, the cheese forms a crust when heat from baking caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the cheese. Made to eat warm, it does not melt. In its home country of Finland, Laplanders often eat it for breakfast, dunking it in their coffee or enjoying with maple syrup or honey.
So how does a cheese invented 4,000 miles away make it to Wisconsin and become a major part of the specialty cheesemaking scene? It all stems back to 2002, when a now-retired scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research began a journey to recreate an original Finnish cheese. The result was the preservation of a tradition and a new opportunity for Wisconsin cheesemakers.
Jim Path, retired specialty cheese coordinator for the Center for Dairy Research, first came across Juustoleipa at a few scattered farmstead dairies in northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and learned it was slowly disappearing as descendants of original settlers in those isolated Finnish communities dwindled. Path, who could trace his ancestry back to Lapland in northern Finland, was charged with helping small Wisconsin cheese companies innovate new specialty cheeses. Juustoleipa seemed like an ideal cheese for existing small producers or farmstead start-ups, as it required no aging, was relatively simple to make and was virtually unknown to American consumers.
Path’s research of this “new” cheese led him to northern Michigan, where he found an elderly couple producing Juustoleipa in tiny quantities. They connected him to a farmstead in Finland just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle, and he traveled there to study the original manufacturing technique. He returned to Wisconsin, and in September of 2002, hosted a seminar at the Center for Dairy Research, which was attended by a record 28 Wisconsin cheesemakers and 10 Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers. The workshop included a hands-on demonstration of making Juustoleipa.
As a result, at least six different Wisconsin cheese companies are today crafting Juustoleipa under a variety of names, including the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, which makes both traditional and jalapeño flavors.
Carr Valley Cheese crafts what it calls “Bread Cheese” at the company’s Fennimore factory, offering its Juustoleipa-style cheese in several flavors, including original, garlic, chipotle and jalapeño.
Pasture Pride Cheese in Cashton crafts its version, called “Juusto,” in traditional, Italian, jalapeño and chipotle flavors, as well as a version peppered with Nueske’s bacon. The factory also makes Guusto (a goat’s milk version) and “oven-baked cheeses” that are Juusto filled with five-year-aged cheddar, parmesan and aged goat cheese.
Then there’s Bass Lake Cheese Juustoleipa. Located in northern Wisconsin in Somerset, the factory is owned by Scott Erickson, the only certified master cheesemaker in Juustoleipa. (Erickson is also certified in cheddar, colby, Monterey jack and muenster).
Brunkow Cheese in tiny Fayette, near Darlington in southwest Wisconsin, is famous for its Bruun-uusto Baked Cheese, which it fries up every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, wafting the scent of baked cheese across the Square. Brunkow’s flavors include plain, pizza, jalapeño, bacon and garlic. The company also makes a limited-availability version with hatch chile peppers.
The newest Wisconsin cheese factory to take on Juustoleipa is Noble View Creamery, in Union Grove. Owner Jay Noble crafts the cheese in traditional, jalapeño and habanero flavors, and also with bacon.
Here in America’s Dairyland, Wisconsinites may enjoy all the flavors of Juustoleipa, but residents have not yet adopted its cultural practices. Legend has it that long ago in Finland, mothers of unmarried daughters offered suitors a cup of coffee with their homemade Juustoleipa recipe, and if the man complimented the mother’s cheese, he got the option to marry the daughter.
While Juustoleipa may not equate a marriage proposal in the United States, the cheese continues to grow in popularity. Commonly served as a warm appetizer, recipes developed by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board also call for it to be served with greens, in eggplant sandwiches or on kebabs.
So the next time someone asks you, “Do you Juusto?” the answer should be an emphatic “yes.”