Finland is probably seen as one of the most remote and northernmost area of Europe by the majority of people. I must admit that it is actually true, but for sure not a good reason not to delve into its culinary treats.
I still remember vividly my first Finnish meal and even more my first breakfast! It was an early January cold morning when I was looking around the hotel buffet in search for familiar food. I couldn’t find many alternatives to raw salmon, rye bread, cheese, reindeer and venison cured-meat, except for the more common yogurt and cereals. Being a foodie I wasn’t scared to try these new delicacies, but I must admit I was bewildered by what I considered a weird food selection back then. Now after having spent a semester in Finland, I can definitely state that I became totally familiar with Finnish cuisine and hopefully I will trigger your interest.
First things first, how many of you knew that Finland is the world largest coffee drinking nation? Finns can easily drink up to 3 coffee cups per day (some even more!) and we are not talking about short espresso but what Italians call the “American coffee”. They start with a good energizing “kahvi” for breakfast and they continue during the day with coffee breaks and right after their lunch. Most prefer their coffee to be strong, the others pour a dash of milk to sweeten their drink, but virtually no one use sugar. Some enjoy it with a yummy traditional cinnamon bun or a Karelian pasty, a tasty “snack” made of bread, rice and potatoes.
Talking about beverages, there is a curious habit I bet will appall most of you! When they dine at home or at the canteen, Finns are used to drink milk during lunch and dinner, except when they go to high-end restaurants. No wonder that one of the most important industry in the country is the dairy production, of course together with electronics and paper.
Let’s move on now to traditional food.
Breakfast is an important meal and can vary depending on the tastes. Commonly, Finns eat yogurt or viili (fermented milk) with a bowl of cereals, muesli, corn flakes or a sort of berry syrup. Porridge is also common, but butter has the lion’s share. It is eaten at different times of the day and it is spread on rye bread or white one as a basic ingredient, then you can add your preferred food on it. Sometimes, especially if you go and have breakfast out of home, it is popular to find raw and cooked salmon, cured meats (like venison, reindeer and elk) and plenty of cheese. They accompany their breakfast with a good cup of coffee of course, milk or juice.
Lunch and dinner are similar, consisting of a single course and they both are consumed very early in the day, around 11 am and 6 pm respectively. Being the temperatures extremely low especially in wintertime, it is very common to enjoy a warm soup; probably the most famous one is the salmon soup. It is served with vegetables, potatoes and pieces of cooked salmon. It is very typical and you should not miss it if you ever go to Northern Europe. A weirder version is the smoked reindeer soup! Other common dishes include both meat and fish, e.g. meatballs with lingonberry jam and mashed potatoes, herrings, grilled salmon fillet or smoked salmon marinated with dill. There are also very traditional foods that are not usually cooked at home but popular in restaurants, especially in expensive fine-dining contexts. These encompass sautéed reindeer, venison fillet, arctic char and Karelian stew (a beef, pork and lamb stew served with the omnipresent potatoes from Karelia region), just to mention a few.
We are now almost at the end of our journey through Finnish cuisine. There’s one more thing to talk about and it’s dessert! Leipäjuusto (or Finnish squeaky cheese) is grilled or baked and served with cloudberry jam. Cloudberries are precious orange berries that can exclusively be picked in Lapland in certain times of the year, but can be found frozen in supermarkets all year round. Mustikkakukko is actually my favorite one: it’s a sort of crunchy blueberry cake warm inside and served with ice-cream.
One last curiosity about Finland food is that Finns absolutely love candies. They are the typical snack for most people and you can easily spot at least two or three supermarket aisles dedicated to these treats. Probably the most popular one is Salmiakki, a salty liquorice candy.
Italians are generally super proud of their cuisine and this can lead not to be open to the new. I personally think that every food culture is worth being explored regardless of how weird or distant can be from our own habits. Each country can teach us something and we should be open to it. That is what actually happened to me in Finland! I was skeptic at first about their food consumption habits, but then once I embraced it, I discovered so many new dishes and combinations of food that I now can’t do without!