A taste of Finland

Filleting a salmon

Story and photos by Katherine Larson

Your “At the Table” correspondent recently participated in the Marquette Choral Society’s tour of Finland, honoring that country’s centennial. So this article presents At the Table in Finland.

It will not be a travelogue; I won’t linger on the fascinating museums or the Tall Ships festival or the two-person sauna in our hotel bathroom. Nor will it be a music review; I will avoid mention of splendid acoustics, generous audiences, and our astonished pride at mastering Finnish pronunciation adequately enough for our songs to be understood.

No, this is “At the Table.” And at the market, and at the ice cream stand, and at the cheese shop—at all places gustatory.

My, but we ate well! Indeed, lavishly. If the editor would allow, I would fill this whole issue of the Marquette Monthly with mouthwatering details. Since cooler heads prevail, I focus on three things: markets, breakfasts and fish.

Fish from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Oulu market

First, markets. Every city boasts at least one market, often two: one open-air, one covered. These markets offer a place where vendors congregate: farmers, bakers, fishmongers, flower-sellers, butchers, purveyors of coffee and baskets and, nowadays, Thai food, and on and on.

Each city also has supermarkets. Our courier, Leena Tuomela, explained that a person could shop exclusively in these stores if she chose, but almost no one so chooses. The food in the markets is far better, far fresher, far more delicious.

And accessible! In Turku, for example, the market is found smack in the center of the city. Moreover, it’s open six days a week, from seven in the morning until late in the afternoon. Nothing could be easier than to stop by on the way to or from work or at a lunch hour to pick up, say,  a couple of kilos of new potatoes, some fresh peas, and a slab of salmon—the basis of a superb supper.

Because Finland’s climate resembles the U.P.’s in its short and cool growing season, some fruits and vegetables necessarily come from elsewhere, often Spain. But a surprising variety is grown locally, with the assistance of greenhouses, hoophouses, and the brief summer’s very long hours of daylight.

An assortment of Finnish berries adorns a simple but rich pudding

And what does grow is superb. I tasted fresh peas whose sweet juicy crispness proclaimed the very essence of pea.

“We eat them like candy,” said Tuomela.

Kanttarelleja or chanterelles, which grow wild in Finland’s spruce and birch forests, sent forth their earthy, loamy, mushroomy scent. Tomatoes—a vendor told me that she farmed only 15 kilometers outside Turku—retained their tomatoey essence despite being relegated to greenhouses. Strawberries emitted the warm but uncloying sweetness that is possible only if the fruit has not been shipped, refrigerated, for hundreds or thousands of miles.

Not to mention the blueberries! Or, rather, the bilberries, mustikka. In the United States, small bluish berries that grow on low bushes in sandy terrain in northern forests are blueberries. In Finland, a similar fruit is actually a bilberry. They are close cousins, slightly different species of the same genus, and taste much alike. We joyfully consumed quantities of these delectable berries—by the kilo from the market, at breakfast with yogurt, decorating our desserts. Bilberries at the Finnish markets, collected wild from the forest, produced the same sweet-tart burst of flavor that characterizes our own U.P. fruit.

Two of us shared this lavish lunch of salmon, vendace, potatoes, and salad

For those who wanted to complete their tasting foray through the market with something sweet, cinnamon buns—always with a hint of cardamom—were pervasive, as was a nationwide chain of stands featuring ice cream under the brand Pingviini, featuring a delightful cartoon penguin. The coconut was superb, flecked with bits of real coconut. The mint chocolate tasted of real mint and real dark European-style chocolate. The strawberry actually tasted like strawberry. But we passed on the ice cream with licorice-salt topping; our sense of adventure did not extend that far.

Then, breakfasts. Here our experience went way beyond the ordinary; Tuotella explained that in daily life “we don’t often eat hotel-style breakfasts.” But to have them available at least once in a while, in my opinion, puts Finns in a highly enviable position.

Buffets are the rule. One starts with the “salad” plate: cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes; sliced ham, turkey, and cheeses; smoked salmon and pickled herring and pickled cucumbers; perhaps some potato salad. Liver sausage, mustamakkara (blood sausage), prosciutto, salami, head cheese.

Red currants

(What is head cheese? Not cheese. Also known as brawn, it’s a terrine made from the flesh of the head of a cow or pig, set in aspic. Superb.)

Then a plate of hot food: roasted mushrooms with onions, sausages and beans, scrambled eggs, bacon.

And of course, everywhere we went, the little rye tarts filled with mashed potatoes or rice called piirakka.

Then there are the great tuns of yogurt and cottage cheese and mannapuuro (a semolina porridge), together with huge bowls of mixed berries and several kinds of milk. And lavish hunks of cheese: aura (a semi-soft blue), turunmaa (a mild Havarti-style cheese), kotijuusto (soft and fresh), leipäjuusto (the famous squeaky cheese)…

And then butter and marmalade and a constellation of different jams, all available to adorn freshly-baked artisanal bread from towering piles: rye, wheat, sourdough, multigrain, seeded, crusty, soft, plain, pumpernickel, and on and on. A buttery rye croissant was particularly tasty; I will not reveal the name of the Marquette Choral Society singer who, one morning, ate five.

A dark rye bread, ruisreikäleipä, that caught my eye came in flat rounds, perhaps 10 inches in diameter, with a 2-inch hole in the middle. The distinctive shape puzzled me until we visited Turku’s Luostarinmäki Handicrafts Museum, a group of ancient wooden houses and workshops that have been fitted up to show daily life and work two centuries ago. Looking up, I saw poles laid across the low wooden ceilings, with rounds of bread strung on them like beads on a necklace. What a clever use of extremely limited storage space! And the distinctive shape persists in Finnish bakeries today.

Finally, fish. Finland is heaven for the piscivore.

Saige Matson admires a wheel of leipajuusto cheese. Above the cheeses there’s an array of cloudberry jam.

Fish of all sorts, fish of all styles. Fresh, smoked, pickled, kippered. Baked, fried, boiled, steamed. Fish pâté. Fish galore.

I lost count of the number of different kinds of herring I encountered. With garlic. With mustard. With onion. With tomato sauce. With carrots. With beets. In mayonnaise. Simply brined. Brined with any of a great variety of spices. Cold-smoked. Hot-smoked. With tar.

Tar? Yes. Don’t imagine a petroleum product; this is wood tar, made by subjecting spruce roots, slivered fine, to a controlled slow burn in a tervahauta (tar kiln) until their liquid drips down into a collection barrel.

Tar was a staple of Finland’s economy for centuries; in the age of wooden boats, it was essential to preserve ships’ hempen rigging from rotting, and sailors’ canvas coats and hats were also tarred to keep off rain and seawater. That is why British sailors came to be nicknamed “tars.” And tar is still used today for many purposes, including to flavor candy (Terva Leijona) and wine (terva viina) as well as herring.

It’s an acquired taste; I did not acquire it.

Smoked fish galore

But I did enjoy lots and lots and lots of other fish. In Turku’s market I concentrated on eating a fine plump smoked Baltic herring, moaning slightly with pleasure, while my companions chased off jealous seagulls. At one roadside rest stop I enjoyed a round of bread heaped with greens, a couple of slices of hard-cooked egg, and pickled anchovies. At another I chose a tangle of cucumber threads, bites of tomato and onion, and a heap of pickled pike. In Tampere we savored salmon with chanterelle cream. In Jakobstad, more salmon, with potatoes and pea shoots. In Oulu, a big platter that combined salmon, potatoes, salad, and a tiny fish, smaller than a finger, known as muikku (vendace). In Mikkeli, fish pâté, smoked sardine, lox, and a sashimi-like whitefish.

And in Kajaani, Marquette’ sister city, we feasted on lohikeitto, or salmon soup.

Tuomela said that it reminded her of her father’s classic salmon soup, and she was persuaded to share his recipe. Here it is, a gift from Finland:

Boil a whole salmon in water with salt, pepper, and onion. Take the fish out of the broth and strain it; remove the fish’s skin and bones and discard them.

To the fish broth, add chunks of potatoes and boil them. Return chunks of salmon to the broth. When everything is cooked, add whole milk and good fresh butter. This is the dish that, if I’m lucky, will be waiting for me in heaven.

I promised to limit myself in this article to markets, breakfasts, and fish, but find that I must squeeze in a couple of paragraphs about a beverage. Despite the fact that Finland has the highest per capita coffee consumption in the world, more than 26 pounds per person per year or more than four cups daily for every man, woman, child, and infant in arms—despite that fact, I focus instead on the Napue gin and tonic.

Napue is an artisanal gin made of rye and distilled with a dozen traditional botanicals—meadowsweet, sea buckthorn, birch leaves, juniper, coriander seed and more. To use it in a gin and tonic, be sure to choose a brand of tonic that does not contain the cloying artificiality of high fructose corn syrup. Add a handful of jewel-like cranberries or lingonberries and stir it with a sprig of fresh rosemary. This concoction won the International Wine and Spirit Competition’s 2015 Spirits Award.

Once all the bottles of Napue that choral society members brought home from the duty-free shop are consumed, this celestial drink will be only a memory. I hope an entrepreneurial Marquette liquor seller will read this article and act to fill the void.

Every step of a journey puts you in a place where you haven’t been before; a wise traveler enjoys the journey as much as the destination. To the hospitable people of Finland, now celebrating 100 years of independence: Onnea! And kiitos paljon!

MM

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