“What do they eat in Finland?” I asked Mike, almost immediately after we found out we were headed there (this was quickly followed by “how do we not freeze to death?”). I couldn’t name a single Finnish dish, and I really had no idea what to expect. I mean, in a place so frozen most of the year, what could they possibly be eating?
Well it turned out Finnish food was pretty good. It’s simple and fresh, mostly local and organic. Much of it seemed utilitarian (food isn’t quite the pleasure and art form it is in say Italy- more on this next week), but pretty tasty nonetheless. Here are the highlights:
Meat and Potatoes
Of course. Any country so far north and so close to Russia is going to have a strong emphasis on these hardy staples. Nearly every meal came with some sort of potatoes (sometimes two!): mashed, boiled, fried or baked, sometimes with some other root vegetables thrown in for variety.
Meat was common too, usually pork, beef or reindeer. One of my most memorable meals was actually my first dinner on arrival. It was a traditional Karelian stew, which originates from near the Russian border. It was a rich baked stew of pork and beef in a kind of gravy. Served over mashed potatoes, it was warm and heavenly on a cold night.
Sorry to all of you Rudolph fans, but the Finns don’t just farm reindeer for fun– they are a major diet staple here. Very little of the reindeer meat is exported, it’s nearly all eaten domestically, in a variety of creative ways.
And yes, as I already suspected, reindeer are delicious. I would describe the taste as similar to buffalo- like beef but a tad tougher and more gamey. Over the course of a week I tried reindeer stew, reindeer roast, reindeer steak, reindeer pate and even reindeer pasta carbonara.
Finland is known for its many lakes and rivers, which means that fresh fish are a popular staple here, even in the winter time when ice-fishing is a popular past time. Whitefish, herring, salmon and or course arctic char are popular. I’m told the sushi in Finland is really quite good, although I didn’t get to try any.
Not being much of a seafood lover, I was nervous about eating fish in Finland. The one dish I did try though was incredible. At the traditional restaurant Laanilan Kievari, fresh caught white fish was grilled over the fire in front of our eyes than served on a bed of lemon scented mashed potatoes (natch).
I love me a good bread and Finland really did not disappoint on this front. Most finish bread is dark rye bread- dry and sour, but so delicious with a generous pat of butter on top. You can find rye bread at nearly every meal and rye crisps are a popular snack.
Rye bread developed popularity because it is easy to store and takes a long time to go bad, however there are also some really delicious crusty wheat breads as well as barley and oat bread.
As I mentioned before, Lapland is known for its vast variety of berries, which by law belong to anyone who wants them. More berries than I even knew existed: Raspberries, cranberries, strawberries, bilberries (similar to blueberries), lingonberries, cloudberries, crowberries and more.
Berries are eaten on their own, with yogurt or porridge in the morning, in pies, as jam, with cream, as part of desserts, and even in soup. My favorite was this little bilberry pie with cream and even more berries on the side.
This one I already knew, thanks to Finlandia Vodka. Like all of those far northern European countries Finland distills vodka- sometimes in awesome flavors like raspberry and cloudberry (see my cloudberry martini above).
In addition to vodka there are a number of local liquors. Many are salty liquorice flavored (ick) like Salmiakkikossu or minty flavored (yum) like Mintu.
Shockingly, since they don’t seem to export it, Finland has really delicious chocolate! The market is dominated by Karl Fazer, which produces 65 million kilos of chocolate a year in a huge range of flavors (strawberry yogurt, honey, cloudberry etc.). They use real milk instead of milk powder like most brands.
On our way out of Helsinki Mike and I hit up the duty-free shop for giant slabs of Karl Fazer in dark, hazelnut and peppermint chocolate flavors. I’m currently hoarding them and doling out tiny squares. I can’t bring back the rye bread or the reindeer steak, but at least I have this… for now.
I visited Inari as a guest of Visit Finland and Northern Lapland Tourism.