Monday, 14 September 2009

Finnish Food 101

Pick up any Traditional Finnish Food cook book (mainly the ones in Finnish Language) and in the preface you'll undoubtedly read dribble like "Finland has the finest fresh ingredients" or "Spices are not used in Finnish Cuisine because Finns prefer to enjoy the superb quality of the freshest ingredients in Europe". [note to self: acquire some citations and post there here]

out of the closet

Any decent researcher will declare their research premise up front, as noone modern believes in the fantasy of "context free" positions, and writing in "It can be observed" or "It is found" is just rubbish designed to lull the reader into some trance of belief in the writers intentions.

poppy cock. I write what I think and justify it with evidence, determination of the "truth" is up to the reader ... not me.

winter SunsetFinland is a dam harsh place to live, aside from Siberia its hard to find a harsher place to live in than Northern and Eastern Finland. Modern amenities (insulation, energy, transport) have made life far far more comfortable, but sit outside in Jeans and a T-shirt for half a day in winter and you won't have hypothermia, you may well be dead.

Accordingly traditional food is whatever you can get in a harsh climate, its restricted in scope, preparation and condiments.

Not using much spices in cooking is certainly a truth, but people are influenced by food culture they see on TV or read about in books. They have no traditions on how it might be prepard (and precious few foreigners to show them) so penetration of this into life is problematic. A quick visit to the supermarket will make it clear that understandings of how to prepare food are very limited. For a start its dam hard to find any nice ingredients.

An endless array of the same kind of luncheon meat, pressed ham pieces or salami repackaged (but looking the same), tons of pre-packaged 4-in-a-bag German styled (but that's where it ends) knack-wurst looking sausages (the staple diet it seems), and some cuts of meats plastic wrapped and covered in slime (which passes for "grilli flavor", usually just makes washing up harder but supplies little in any taste). Almost all the chicken will be
  • breast fillets covered in some obscene slime which passes for "grill flavor"
  • breast fillets "natural" (if your lucky)
  • mangled breast fillets covered in the same sickening slime (you couldn't call this diced, its clearly by machine)
  • legs or drumsticks covered in some "grill flavour" which looks like it started as a powder
  • perhaps if your lucky you'll also be able to find mangled up thigh fillets
The pork suffers from the same issues.

Why is it so

Well if you think about Finland geographically you'll soon see that its about as far into the polar regions that humans can live and grow their own food. In fact its only the Gulf Stream and proximity to the Baltic (stabilizing air temperatures) which makes it as habitable as it is.

Seems funny ... but if you pick up a large ball and (without turning it) look at it as if you were the sun and it was the earth, then after you get far up past the 50th parallel you'll see that it is starting to behave as a log scale ... small vertical movements take you further along the earth. As you can see in this diagram the red area on the top of the earth is longer for the same movement in height at the equator.

These parallel lines are a good representation of the amount of sunlight falling on the earth, so the further north you go the more land the same amount of light is spread across (and I haven't even taken the extra tangent through the atmosphere into account yet).

Growing seasons are tightly defined and despite the days of long periods of sunshine in the summer if you plant your crops even a little late they just won't grow enough to produce a harvest. If you try to plant to early you could risk loosing all of it with a snap frost killing off the seedlings. Its a tough growing environment and gets harder the further north you go. I recommend that you get a patch of land and start growing your own potatoes and vegetables to see what I mean.

Accordingly Finns have a strange view of divisional regions in Finland which is almost like the same Log scale.

Southern Finland is the little strip along the bottom I've marked, Central Finland is that patch in the south and northern Finland is all the way from just below the middle to the top. I've marked an area with an arrow point to it, this is roughly the point at which Lapland starts and reindeer herding starts ... perhaps the Finns are aware that this really isn't Finland and is infact the Sami lands, but that's another blog article...

All of this of course has an enormous impact on food: what's available, what it costs and when you can get it.

Something which would be intuitive to our parents and grandparents but seems to be lost on the supermarket generation who (among other things) are so decoupled from our reality that they think water comes from the tap.

So clearly in this environment Potato is one of the main staples, along with Turnip (locally called Lanttu) Carrots, peas and some other of the "plain jane" stuff of our (Australian) childhoods.

Grains like Oats Barley and Rye are grown here while wheat has traditionally been a "exotic" and or expensive grain. This has a strong influence on breads ... hope you like them chewy.

The text kovaa kuin elämä means hard as life. Especially with bread certainly fresh is best. But the emphasis with bread making (in my view) is on storage and not wasting anything.

Think about it ... its not long ago that thousands died in starvation caused by crop losses. If you think in internet sorts of terms you'll only see the now. Humanity is not so transient (well I hope not) and so if you take a historical perspective to it, rather than an internet timespan, think of the climate and perhaps it'll make more sense. Let me quote from the Wikipedia link above:

Parts of the country had suffered poor harvests in previous years, most notably in 1862. The summer of 1866 was extremely rainy, and staple crops failed widely: potatoes and root vegetables rotted in the fields, and conditions for sowing grain in the autumn were unfavourable. When stored food ran out, thousands took to the roads to beg. The following winter was hard, and spring was late. In Helsinki, the average temperature in May 1867 was +1.8°C, about 10°C below the long-time average. In many places, lakes and rivers remained frozen until June. After a promisingly warm midsummer, freezing temperatures in early September ravaged crops; the harvest was about half the average. By the autumn of 1867, people were dying by the thousand.

Pork is pretty much the main meat, with some amounts of Beef (cattle seem to be kept for dairy) and a little bit of mutton. Note the word for mutton is quite conveniently "lammas" so watch out when you're looking for lamb. Finnish language is full of such issues and they do not differentiate between "electronics" and "electrical" in normal language, try being an engineer and looking for a place to buy some electronics stuff ... but that's another blog article.

Keep in mind the climate and it will become pretty evident that stock animals need to be housed (I mean even sheep have limits and -20 has to be past it). So if you want many of your animals to be around come spring you'll be keeping them indoors. This has enormous impact on the costs of keeping meat and what you'll choose.

Other meats include reindeer and moose (to those who can afford it or know someone who goes hunting), some game birds (well, mainly duck and even that's a hunting thing or fantasy of the past), of course chicken (comes cheaper with slime) and fish.

Of the to fish, Salmon (known locally as Lohi) is certainly the best, but in my view the Norwegian Salmon is the go more than the lake or (even worse the) farmed stuff here. There is another common local lake fish called Muikku, its small and normally netted. In my opinion, some things all the lake fish have in common is they normally have something in common with the taste of lake silt, are better fried with butter and preferably some flour ... anything to disguise the taste really.

Cooking style

I've lived most in Eastern Finland where Keralian culture has been a significant influence, Helsinki (south on the Baltic) has of course plenty of influence from trade with Russia, Germany and the Baltic countries. This makes Helsinki stand out as different from the rest of the place. Country people seem to think of Helsinki as some sort of "black hole of calcutta", but that's ok as Heislinki people get to think of the country people as "vitu maalainen" (which I won't translate here).

Cooking outside is something which happens in the warmer months, and you can find "traditional delicacies" like Lohi fillets being cooked beside an open flame like this. Notice the oil catch tray, Lohi is a very oily fish.

Ovens inside the house are both for keeping the house warm (and are centrally located) and provide a location for baking. Temperatures are hot at first as a fire is built inside the oven directly. At this point you can bake things like Piirakka (shown on the left) which are a thin 'pastry' of unleaven bread dough based on rye flour with perhaps a little wheat tossed in. The interior is filled with (typically) mashed potato or rice boiled in milk these days, but that's quite fancy by traditional standards where it was typically boiled and mashed turnip or oat porridge. They may be served with "egg butter" which is mashed boiled eggs with extra butter.

They're nice, but a bit lame ... if you ask me.

The oven stays quite warm for a while, so this leads to the next most common dish which is Paisti. This is essentially an oven baked casserole, it can contain almost anything, but some combinations I'm familiar with are:
  • pork (with some chunks of skin with the fat on) and beef chunks (poor cuts)
  • pork as above and small lake fish (covers up the mud taste of the fish but seems odd to me)
  • Lanttulaatikko (turnip boiled, mashed, milk added spread in a baking dish and baked)
  • Porkanalaatikko (carrot instead of turnip)
  • Mämmi (a nasty black looking porridge common at easter ... I don't want to hear another word about vegemite from a Finn)
The meat casserole dishes are typically cooked in a deep bowl with just water perhaps an onion and (for the really spicy tolerant) a single black peper corn.

... meat and fat boiled slowly with fish ... no condiments ... yum.

Sure, traditional English food is hardly attractive either, but then I've never said otherwise. After living for some years in Asia I find that Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and Indians all have great food culture, while Scandinavia has ... well ...

So, a combination of lack of food availability, lack of food diversity, little or no spice trade, limited meats makes Traditional Finnish Food look strange today. Its an aquired taste, its simple and if you grew up in the west you might find you don't like it.

I personally find it heavy, saturated in fats (good if you eat little, work hard and live outside) which for my lifestyle (computer systems) is neither good for my health or my palate. Today, if you live in or visit Helsinki you may wonder just what it is that I'm on about, as the conference centers, restaruants and "hesburger" burger outlets makes it look rather different.

There's lots more to say, so in part 2 of this I'll look at some other views (from Finnish sources) of the challenges of Food in Finland ... to wet your appetite I'll say that the traditional "Kauppahalli" (local food market where good food is actually sold) is under threat from the commercial machinery of the K and S chains. Shareholders naturally benefit, food is perhaps cheaper, probably more available and certainly mush.