I was first introduced to juustoleipä (juusto = cheese, leipä = bread) a little over three years ago, my first summer out here. It had been cut into ordinary-looking cubes, so I thought it was mozzarella at first glance. Then I was instructed to eat the cubes with jam, which was a bit different, but not too far departed from the more familiar cheese and fruit pairings. Then the cheese started making sounds while I was chewing, and I figured it might be good to ask what exactly it was that we were eating.
Like many Finnish foods, juustoleipä is a result of the Nordic love affair with long-term food preservation. Going by various names including bread cheese (because it could be dried and toasted like bread), squeaky cheese (because it makes a distinctive sound when it rubs against your teeth) and frying cheese (alluding to its ability to not turn into a puddle when subjected to relatively high heat), juustoleipä is a firm fresh cheese made from milk (originally of a reindeer, but now more common in cow flavor) that is curdled then baked in a large round pan. It could then be dried out until it was quite hard and stored for years to come, a very important quality when you have to stock up for long, harsh winters. To soften it up for eating, all you had to do was spear it with a stick and toast it over the fire until it started to smell nice.
We regularly buy freshly-made half-rounds at the store and eat them with sandwiches, either warm or cold as suits the weather. It has a very mild, almost sweet flavor when cold, and develops a bit more of a nutty mozzarella scent when toasted. The version we get is lactose-free, as are many dairy products here. <3 Although there are apparently many ways to eat it (with jam and in coffee being the most mentioned), we usually just snack on it plain. For those who are wary about the coffee idea because they assume this stuff is like regular cheese, you can chill — freshly made bread cheese is so mild that it’s probably closer to putting in a dollop of chewy cream than anything else.
But that’s not the end of the story! Now, as luck would have it, Trader Joe’s started carrying juustoleipä in their stores in 2009. Carr Valley also seems to be distributing a version of it in many stores as well. Imagine our surprise when we saw little slabs of bread cheese sitting next to the brie when we went to do our grocery shopping in Southern California one day. Naturally, we bought a piece to try it out.
The first thing I noticed was that the TJ version was much firmer than the stuff we got in Finland — probably because it had been dried out more and was further along in the preservation process. I tossed some slices on a hot pan to see what happened next. It started leaking grease in a manner more consistent with mozzarella than with the Finnish stuff, which just tends to bubble out some milky (yes, it probably is milk…) liquid as it softens. Upon sampling the slice, I found it to much MUCH saltier than the Finnish stuff. This could either be because of the preservation process used or because marketing thought it would be more attractive to American audiences if it was seasoned like fried mozzarella sticks.
My final opinion? Well, we continued buying the TJ cheese up until we moved out the States, so obviously we liked it. Was it the same stuff? No, but it was made in the spirit of the original and was a decent enough substitute since we didn’t feel like making our own. I was not able to eat the TJ stuff in the same quantities that we eat the Finnish stuff, because it is just so salty and greasy, but it was still nice for a quick snack. It was also relatively pricey for such a small package — a 6″ square package could go for between $4-5, about the same price we pay for an entire half-round (16″ diameter) of it here. If you do get a chance to sample some, though, please do because it’s definitely a unique experience.