The hidden pleasures of Finnish kitchen

Us Finns, we are a humble nation. We rarely think that we should be proud of our accomplishments. We hush down people who are trying to tell us, that something we did is great or amazing! “It is nothing special” or “It is just something small like that”, “I don’t know, I just made it”. This is what you will face if you try and compliment someone Finnish. That goes also when it comes to cooking. Many of us rather make things ourselves, rather than buy the ready made thing from a store. The self made thing might not be better or even cheaper, and definitely not easier, but we like it better never the less. The humbleness might be one of the reasons why nobody knows about Finnish food. 

What do we need to understand when talking about Finnish cooking? There are some basic rules:

  • Simplicity
    • Never go too fancy, stick to the character of the ingredient and don’t try to hide it away with strong seasoning or messing up the tastes. Keep in mind, that this does not need to mean boring.
  •  Naturalness
    • We like using the ingredients we can find from the nature surrounding us. Forests, lakes and fields offer a lot to eat. Every mans right guarantees that anyone, who wants and is able to do so, can pick their food from nature. Here you must remember, that we live high up north. Cultivating is sometimes difficult, and making the produce edible, sometimes requires imagination.

In search for mushrooms.

  • Effortfullness
    • Especially with traditional kitchen, the food preparing takes quite some effort. There is hardly anything that is possible to make in less than an hour.
  • Preserving
    • One of the key things is, that the food that is once made with great effort, needs to remain edible for long times. That goal has left us living with many pies and other pastry-wrapped things.
  • Sweet stuff
    • The desserts, pastries and cookies. They are from a totally different world.

So, key features are now on the table. Let me open them up.

Simplicity basically came to our cuisine thanks to the location of Finland, stretching on the both sides of the arctic circle. The only thing that grows up there, that can be given the name seasoning is onion and garlic. Still now, we see a lot of food seasoned only with onion, salt and pepper. Of course not the tastiest things you might be able to imagine. To find something great, you will have to go look deeper. Find a mother, grandmother, aunt, dad or granddad, someone who owns a well used cook book.  Then you will find the skill, that uses ingredients with care and understands the nature behind them. Then there is no need for chili or abundance of herbs.

Try mixing beetroot and honey. Your kitchen will be covered in red, but you’ll have a taste bud awakening delight in your hands. 

Naturalness goes quite far hand in hand with the simplicity. There is a lot of things in nature, that you can just pick and eat, no need for further preparing. A lot of Finns hunt mushrooms and berries. We even make things out of leaves and spruce sprouts. Outside the kingdom of plant life, fishing and hunting are too very much alive. Fish, coming straight out of the lake, being smoked the same day. tasty and just about as fresh as it can get. I spent the summers of my childhood running through the forests, hunting down boletes, chantarelles,  and all kinds of berries. My moms mushroom salad with some garlic, onion and parsley, yummy!

Finnish people respect the nature, since it so clearly is our food giver. Hunters thank the nature, for giving the meat, fishermen never complain about the catch, to not make the gods angry. We still have festivities around harvest to show the gratitude towards nature.

Blueberry season, and you are allowed to go mental!

During the summer months many of us also likes to eat in nature, or at least outside. BBQ and picnics are in huge demand. 

Effortfulness is very present. Finnish food is no fast food. Preparing the best bread in the world, being rye bread, takes up to 3 days to prepare decently. The bread needs to get sour and to achieve that, the dough needs to stand. And then it is kneaded over and over again to achieve the correct texture. Certainly bread is not the only thing we place a lot of effort on. We might run around the woods for hours, to make a simple mushroom sauce or a berry pie.

Preserving food is one of the most visible traits of Finnish cuisine. The growing season of vegetables is short and the winter relatively long. So we need the food to stay edible for a long time too. Every fall people are stuffing their freezers and cellars with berries, mushrooms and vegetables.

Chantarelles. The good stuff!

The other part of food that stays fine for long times has a different history. Finland has always been a country of long distances. Especially during the times of no cars nor trains. People spent long times on the road and needed their supper also on the go. For that problem came the answer in the shape of pies, pastries and kalakukko (fish cock, weird, yes, but tasty. Ball of rye dough filled with fish and meat). Food closed in a crust is easy to take with you, and slow and long cooked produce stays resilient to bacteria. Means that the food is still tasty after a few days on the road, handy.

Sweet stuff, that’s my favorite part of this all. Finland is good at desserts. The cavalcade begins with pulla, of course. A bit like cinnamon roll, but you can find it in so many shapes, forms and sizes, you won’t believe your eyes. It is sweet pastry with a lot of sugar, butter, cinnamon and cardamom. Pulla offers us a base for other things, we combine the dough for sweet pies and doughnuts. If pulla is not enough for you, you’ll need to taste Piparkakku, Ginger bread wholly unique in Finnish style. Mainly served during Christmas time. 

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Piparkakku in the making.

Nature plays a role also in desserts. We use berries and apples a lot, to make pies, jams, porridges (yes, in Finland porridge can be made out of berries and it is delicious, now shut up and eat your porridge!) and cakes. We also have mustikkakukko (blueberry cock, same thing as fish cock, but filled with blueberries). Even for sweet things, finns usually use salted butter. Gives a nice background for the other tastes, a contrast to sweetness. 

Also, Finnish chocolate, we are too humble to be proud of it, but it is gooood!

This is pulla. Korvapuusti, to be exact.

This is pulla. Korvapuusti, to be exact.

Weird fixations

Well, first of all, rye bread. We love our rye bread. There are tons and tons of different types of it, every part of Finland has their own style of bread. Others like it soft, some like to strengthen their jaws and make more chewy bread. 

Potatoes. If a Finn can eat potatoes, he will eat potatoes. That is the key to our existence. We make bread out of potatoes, we eat potatoes with butter, with cream, mashed, jacketed, boiled or baked, whatever you can think of, we’ll eat it.

 Mämmi, food that looks a bit like something a cow produced out on the field. So black, muddy thing, made out of prunes and rye flour. You can make it edible by adding a pile of sugar and hearty slurp of cream on top. Although there are people, who say, the cream spoils the dish entirely!

Salmiakki, that sometimes painfully salty “candy”. perfection with mixed with fruity wine gums. 

Finland is also the highest consumer of coffee per capita, in the entire world. We have our moments for morning coffee, before lunch coffee, day coffee and 4 o’clock coffee. and all the coffees in between. It is stated in the law, that Finns need to have their coffee breaks at work too! Coffee is holy, enjoy it with pulla. 

Midday coffee moment enjoyed outside.

As always, there is a lot more to say, and maybe I’ll dig a bit deeper in the future. But at this moment, you’ll have to survive on this. 

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The Faces of Greece – Day Two

Sunday came, chilly and sunny, giving another face entirely to our surroundings. Thanks to early night, we woke up before the sun, to witness one of the most beautiful sunrises. It lit the horizon into flaming orange, contrasted by the pure white clouds right underneath our feet. The colors the sun shone to the mountaintops, breathtaking views!

Mountainy breakfast and large coffee. ready to face just about anything!

Clouds over the Mediterranean. Litochoro in the distance. 

Hearty breakfast shoveled down and we headed back down the mountain to our car. We had the Mytikas, bathing in sunlight, looking after us as we wandered on with sore muscles crying for help. The lower end of the trail is easy going, well walked path, so we advanced fast.

The difference in surroundings was immense. The day before, when we made our way up, everything was whitewashed, hidden in clouds.

It was almost warm already, the frost was melting.

Now we could see the surrounding peaks and the full colors of the nature.  Usually it is rather boring to take the same trail back, where you came from, but this time it was different.

Sometimes it is good to look down and see the small things.

We had planned to have a relaxed day after climbing Olympus. So we took the car and headed for the coast. In a few moments, we left the wintery mountains behind and embraced the warmth of sunny seaside. Out of the mainland Greece, there are three narrow peninsulas pointing South-East. The middle one of those was our destination.

Olives, just hanging.

During summer months that area is filled to the limit with tourists. Now, in the end of October, we found empty beaches and quiet roads. We stopped by small bays to admire the blue Mediterranean, shining under the sun. Found quite some olive trees and again, unbelievably nice and warm hearted Greeks.

Change to the scene.

The Chalkidiki peninsula has a big national park. The terrain seems to be full of heather. heather calls for honey. And we passed row after row of beehives. Stepping out of the car and getting close to those boxes brings the smell of sweet honey into your nose, especially if there is some sun warming the hives.

At first we did not know what these boxes were. So we got closer until we were surrounded by busy bees.

Sure, the nature, olive farms and sea was beautiful. But we were in for a real treat. After dipping our tired feet into the sea, we started leaving for the airport, driving back on the other coast of the peninsula. After turning behind a corner there was, in front of us, the second highest peak of Greece. A mountain growing straight out of the sea.

We had a marvelous view on the Mount Athos. Athos towers over the autonomous monk state, that occupies the third one of the Halkidiki peninsulas. Reaching almost up to 3000 meters of height, it is rather impressive sight. I would have been happy to climb it, but unfortunately, no women allowed.

Athos, straight out of the sea.

So we were left to the shores, admiring the best from far. We did catch a very beautiful sight of it, with setting sun behind us, and pale moon right next to the mountain, surrounded by calm sea. I could have just stayed there, breathing it all in, letting the evening surround us. But there was a plane to catch.

Look carefully, and spot the moon.

Timing was perfect in this shot!

Driving towards Thessaloniki, we were surprised by yet another amazing scene. The sun making is journey down, touching the side of the mountain we had climbed just the other day. Creating a beautiful landscape with the silhouette of Olympus, and all the shades of blue.

Call it a cherry on top of this weekend.

All in all, Greece plated the table with immense beauty, versatility and friendliness. We experienced pain, tiredness and joy. Plenty of joy. I think me and Waffle are now even closer to each other than before. If that is even possible.

I am lucky to have him.Some more pictures can be found here: Our Flickr account

The Faces of Greece – Day One

It was a Friday afternoon as me and Waffle watched the colorful landscape of Belgium disappear underneath us, as we popped above the clouds. A few hours later, we saw the first view on the soaking wet Greece, and the lights of Thessaloniki. A weekend was about to begin.

We somehow survived to the highway after driving through the somewhat chaotic center of Thessaloniki. Our hotel was in between Thessaloniki and the Mount Olympus. The village was abandoned by tourists, dark, quiet and ghostly. Just a few stray dogs barking at our car. At the hotel we were greeted by the most friendly owner. He showed us around, told that we were the only guests and was sad to hear that we were staying just for one night.

Empty streets of a holiday village.

Came Saturday morning. Wet and grey it was, when we crawled out of the bed, switched into our hiking gear and headed for the Olympus, who was hiding inside a thick layer of clouds. The starting point for our hike was at 1100 meters above sea level, there we left our car and started the journey towards the invisible peak, through fog. We were able to see roughly 10 meters ahead of us, then everything went white. We were surrounded by the sound of dripping water and our own footsteps. Clueless about the landscape surrounding us. The mythical mountain of Greece, was staying true to its name.

After a couple of hours of out of shape hiking, up hill, constantly up hill, we reached the Refuge A. A mountain base camp 2100 meters above the sea. Our approach was acknowledged by a herd of dogs, barking at us. After confirming we were no threat to them, they came and asked for petting, food and attention. Such terrifying guarding dogs.

On a guard post.

The refuge was full of hikers, coming, going or just resting. The day before it had rained heavily and a lot of hikers were still drying out next to the fire places. We heard that the actual peak of Olympus, Mytikas, was unreachable, thanks to snowfall. So we were aiming for Skolio, the peak 8 meters below it.

We reserved beds for us and had our lunch at that place. Again we met extremely friendly people, chatted about the dogs they were taking care of, collecting money for their food and veterinary costs. Greece seems to have an ever growing issue with those strays. Somewhat heart breaking to see animals abandoned like that, out on the streets.

A lot of these dogs had an ear missing.

After lunch we started off again, towards the peak. The cloud was still there, blocking the vision tightly. The temperature was quickly dropping as we ascended. Even though, we could not really see anything around us, there was a great beauty in the nature. Small things, like twigs transformed into small jewels, colors being muffled by the frost and everything surrounded by whiteness. Serenity. That’s the word for it I guess.

The peacefulness of the landscape disappeared soon, when my heart decided to go and get our old friend arrhythmia joining the team. So the climbing hit a wall. I was angry, in pain and devastated. We might not make it to the top. I sat for a while, waiting for the situation to solve itself.

A misery.

At some point I decided to carry on. We did not came all the way to Greece to sit around a mountain cabin. So we went, slowly advancing, higher and higher. I had to stop, breathe and relax after every 10 meters or so, otherwise the pain was just overwhelming.

Not the images you usually see from Greece, maybe?

That was how we reached the treeline and crossed it. After the trees were gone, came the wind, making the temperature feel a lot colder. Poor Waffle forgot his hood, and suffered from frozen ears and cold head. Everything was still very white, icy and beautiful.

My frozen Waffle. Smiling so hard because the sense of reality got frozen too.

We walked through a snowy and slippery trail. Higher and higher, always hoping to finally reach the end of the clouds. No luck with that. So we continued climbing into the white void, still pausing every few meters, breathing, relaxing, and moving again.

Surreal.

The silence up there, during the moments with no wind. It feels like the mountain pressed mittens onto your ears. At times I felt like giving up, because of the pain. Also Waffles head was freezing over. But quitting clearly is not in our vocabulary.

Some agony in this picture. My chest was burning and my head was trying to explode.

Finally, we met a group of hikers, and they told us that the first peak, Skala, was just a few hundred meters away. So we pushed through. I thought I was dying when we finally reached the top. But it was worth it.

Mytikas, the home of Zeus.

We saw the Mytikas, caped in clouds, massive and somehow demanding our attention, disappearing to the fog, and then coming visible again. Behind it, a deep gorge, and Skolio, somewhere, not visible. It was rather easy to understand, why the ancient Greeks gave this place for Zeus to live in.

I decided not to continue up all the way to Skolio, so we stayed on top of the Skala, taking it all in. Hoping for a bit of sun, which we finally got, followed by a nice view on the Mytikas. Then started slow and painful descending. Clouds were getting thinner, and we were treated with some really nice eye candy.

The trail behind us.

If you look close enough, you can see him, Zeus.

It was clear, that especially I was completely out of shape. My thighs were trembling while I was trying to find the balance on slippery, rocky trail. Motivation being a hot meal and bed to crash into. The dream of seeing the stars on a mountain and spending time above the clouds, those were coming true.

“Food or petting! Otherwise I’ll drool on your shoes tonight!”

5 hours after leaving, we were back at the Refuge, befriending dogs. We got our beds and some dinner. And fell asleep almost immediately. So much for the stars. There we were in a coma, in a dorm room at the height of 2100 meters. Oblivious of the wonders of the day to come.

Stay tuned.