Kaffeost (Juustoleipä) has become one of Wisconsin’s most popular novelties after a successful pilgrimage west.
Lapland’s magical Christmas connotations make it seem like the stuff of fairy tales. It’s easy to imagine Santa’s workshop and brisk sleigh rides; the Northern Lights dancing over crisp snow and herds of reindeer.
In reality, this historic European region, which encompasses the uppermost parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, is akin to Europe’s Canada: sparsely populated apart from a handful of towns and cities, with fast salmon-filled rivers and swathes of forest where moose and reindeer run freely. It is also home to Europe’s last indigenous population, the Sami, traditionally herders of reindeer, who coaxed milk from these animals to create a versatile and fascinating cheese.
Kaffeost (as it is known in Swedish) or Juustoleipä (Finnish) is a cheese born from hardship and necessity, an emblem of the intense relationship between the native Sami and the black reindeer of cold and snowy Lapland. A simple curd cheese, it is made from unpasteurized milk and has a consistency similar to halloumi or mozzarella.
“The Sami were always nomadic—just like reindeer,” explains Sami elder, Henry Huuva, a carpenter living today in Övertorneå in Swedish Lapland. “But my ancestors realized that these animals could be partly tamed. So, while they let them run free during the summer months, in the winter, they drew the reindeer into the woodland corral to take care of them.”
This became a vital exchange for the older generations of Sami, who relied wholly on the reindeer for clothes—and food. “For my father’s family, the reindeer were everything. The pelts made our clothes and our tents; the tallow the candles. We ate reindeer meat and used the blood for a kind of pancake. My father drank only reindeer milk, from which we also made our cheese.”
Milking the Reindeer
Huuva describes how, as a child, he remembers the older women in the tribe milking the reindeer. “It actually wasn’t difficult at all; the reindeer cows were used to their soothing words and calm ways. But a reindeer only yields about 3 fluid ounces of milk a day, and you had to leave some for the calves.” Throughout the year, plenty of milk was also dried in readiness for Lapland’s harsh winters, where the first snow falls as early as September and lasts until May.
The curd cheese from the reindeer traditionally played a big role in the Sami diet. As nomads, with little access to wheat or other grains, whole slabs of cheese were used in place of bread, exploiting its porous and versatile characteristics as a base for sweet or savory ingredients, hence, the Finnish name, Juusto, which means bread cheese. Another key tradition gives rise to the Swedish name of Kaffeost, which translates as coffee cheese. The Sami dropped chunks of cheese into their coffee to increase its calorie content and comfort level, a tradition that has survived to this day.
Manufactured today across the Lapland region from cow and goat milk as well as in select dairies in the U.S., it is sometimes known as Finnish squeaky cheese, as its tightly woven protein network slides compactly against your teeth when you bite it, giving it that characteristic squeaking sensation. It is usually sold already baked in the oven, blistered by characteristic black spots, and featured in sweet and savory dishes.
The Coffee Cheese Tradition
We are sitting round the campfire in the teepee tent at Huuva Hideaway, Henry’s home with his wife Pia and daughter Maja, and today a bed and breakfast for curious travelers to Lapland. As I watch, Henry spoons coffee into a tin pot filled with cold water and thrusts it into the fire to boil. He then passes round traditional birchwood hand-carved cups containing a few cubes of Kaffeost.
Coffee may seem an exotic ingredient for a Nordic tribe, but its consumption by the Sami people was first recorded in the 1700s, when they headed south to bargain with reindeer pelts in exchange for coffee and tobacco. The coffee was often roughly hand ground and the Swedish coffee tradition to this day involves adding grinds directly to cold water to boil on an open fire.
When the coffee is ready, it is poured over the cubes of cheese, which prove remarkably resistant to its heat. I drink the coffee, Sami style, chewing a little cheese alongside each mouthful of coffee, and leaving the rest to amalgamate in the bottom of the cup, satisfyingly infused with coffee flavors.
Cows and Goats
Janna Enström, a producer of Lapland Kaffeost, launched her goat farm and dairy Kalix Ost seven years ago in the Baltic Sea town of Kalix, with a dream to preserve the old ways of cheesemaking.
“This cheese is a symbol of our region,” she affirms, “with ancient roots in northern Finland and the Tornedalian valley. The northern tradition was to bake it. In parts of Sweden, where they had goats, they made it from goats’ milk and left it fresh.” Janna also experimented with using goats’ milk for a number of years, but switched to just cow milk this year after the goats’ milk proved hard on her hands. She says that no one uses reindeer milk any more, as it’s just not economically viable.
Enström works with around 50 liters or 13 gallons of milk at a time and explains that it takes four or five hours to produce the finished product.
“I warm the cow milk to around 34-35 degrees C (93-95 degrees F), then I add the rennet,” she explains. “After about 40 minutes, I cut the curd, then stir it and heat it to about 40 degrees. I stir another 10 minutes, then gather up the cheese and put it into cloths. From there, it goes into flat, aluminum frames and is left for a few hours. Some people oven-bake it, but I use a grill to obtain the typical baked spots, in line with the north Finland and Tornedalian tradition.”
The next day, Enström packages up the cheese, which has a remarkable shelf life due to its low moisture content. “You can keep it in the fridge for at least six months, although once it’s opened you should eat it within a week,” she notes. “I like to eat it warm from the oven, topped with cream and cloudberry fruit, a local wild berry we find in the forest.”
Pilgrims to Wisconsin
Since Sami people have nomadic blood in their veins, it’s not surprising to discover that plenty of Nordic pilgrims headed to the U.S. over the years. The fertile farmland and forests of Wisconsin attracted many Europeans in search of a new life, as noted by Sid Cook, master cheesemaker at Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle, WI.
“Many immigrants, including my family, came over from Europe and settled in the Wisconsin countryside to farm. They brought with them the taste of their homeland and passed it down through generations,” says Cook, whose family cheese business is over 100 years-old.
Today, Carr Valley produces a variety of Juusto, which has become all the rage, he explains. “We make over 100 varieties of cheese, and I always like to try out new processes, techniques and affinage. I’ve put a spin on many European varieties and thought it would be fun to try a cheese that required baking. We have the best milk delivered to us daily from our local family farmers, and it really brings a taste of Wisconsin to the “Finnished” product (pun intended!)”
He adds, “I’ve talked to many people with Finnish heritage that grew up eating ‘squeaky cheese’ that their parents or grandparents made at home, and they say the taste and consistency of our bread cheese is nostalgic for them.”
But getting the cheese right was a complex task. “In the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, through the University of Wisconsin, Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, we receive a lot of training on different processes and testing to make sure we meet certain criteria, but in the end, we rely on the most important indicator—the taste test.
“Traditional Juustoleipä was made with reindeer milk and, since there aren’t many reindeer in Wisconsin, we use cow and goat milk for our versions. We also offer flavored varieties. But the main feature that remains the same is the baked exterior and the need for the product to be heated, giving it a glistening exterior while retaining its form.”
Ever curious, Cook says he appreciates the cheese’s versatility. “I really enjoy it with coffee. You can pair it with sweet or savory condiments. I like to sauté mine in a cast iron skillet and top with maple syrup or a nice preserve. “I know a lot of people enjoy eating it as a gluten-free ‘mozzarella-like’ appetizer with marinara. It’s been really fun to see how creative our customers are. You can grill, sauté, bake and even fry it. It’s really become one of our most popular cheeses in recent years. It’s one of those cheeses that once you try it, you’re hooked!”