SWEDEN: TO SUM UP..

And so, another chapter of this great transeuropean culinary safari must end. But, before we turn the page to another day, a new sky and different people; nice of this -your- humble writer, to dedicate a few paragraphs of suited closure manner to what I can only define as a very royal and tasteful host: SWEDEN.

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Now, I’ve invested most of my typing on describing the tracks that led us to these -our own- present time and place. My place, as a matter of mere backpacking synergy. But, in all sense of the word, traditional to these people: Swedes. And why, you may ask, would these facts be important? Well, in my not so humble opinion I think that knowing where you are coming from may not define where you are going next, but it may have some incidence on the ways that will lead you to your next destination.

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Drottningholm Palace | House of The Royal Swedish Family

Paying attention to detail, or details, for that matter. Questioning, arguing and re-questioning. Measuring without measure, and searching whatever it is that you found missing, even if you don’t know what that thing is. At the end of the day everything you meet for the first time will face a toe to toe fight against everything else you have already met in the past. Preconceptions and preacquired knowledge will test the meaning, the limits and boundaries, the mere nature, of all that’s new to you. But, as Nobel said: “One can state, without exaggeration, that the observation of and the search for similarities and differences are the basis of all human knowledge.”

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Alfred Bernhard Nobel | 21-10-1833  –  10-12-1896

Alfred Nobel may have died in 1896, but if there’s something completely unquestionable about these past 121 years passed since we lost the inventor of the dynamite is that they couldn’t shake his spirit off. To inspire, that was Nobel’s largest gift to humanity. To inspire every day the souls and bodies of every man and woman of science, arts and politics to be the best they can be. For them, and all of us. That’s what we received from this Swedish chemist, engineer, writer, inventor, businessman, and philanthropist: heritage. And why am I talking about this? Because if there’s something that you can define as absolutely Swedish is the admiration and respect for heritage.

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The Nobel Museum | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

And of course, their cuisine pays no minor respect to this heritance: it wouldn’t be unfair or demeaning to say that not much of Sverige’s culinary rubric has changed through the ages of men that turned into Vikings that turned this land into a Kingdom that was transformed into an Empire. Trust me, not much. They treasure all that symbolizes their motherland and from national and religious festivities to day-to-day food, they stand guard at the doors of patriotic values and principles, taking care of 2 of the fundamental pillars of Swede civilization: who’s eating and what.

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Riddarholm Church | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

The who: Sweden has been described as a model welfare state due to the fact of every citizen being guaranteed his/her medical care. Universal and equal access to medical services, as well as equal funding of health care constitutional reforms were stablished back in the early 90s. Sweden’s deep concern for equal human rights has helped lead to a healthier population. Infant mortality has been sharply reduced. In addition, children and teens receive free dental care until the age of 20.

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Stockholm City Hall

If we add to the recipe their concern for environmental care and education; we can understand why is it that “What they eat” is equally important. The quality of the agricultural produces, dairy being the largest in number, pork and poultry on second and 3rd, must match not only what’s nutritiously best for the consumers, but also the production policies and regulations that best take care of their motherland. Since they’ve joined the EU, back in 1995, Sweden has achieved figures amongst the top five EU countries with the highest proportion of organically farmed land, providing also growing number of jobs in organic farming. Let’s do not forget that from the Top 10 Import Goods figures, none of those ten commodities (raising up to 65%+ of their portfolio) falls into an agricultural category.

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In fact, it was Alfred Nobel who many times addressed the matter of agriculture as the “biggest industry of the Era”. Interesting fact about A.B. Nobel, he declared on his will that 94% of his state should be designated to the extended promotion and celebration of achievements that would play significant roles in preserving and improving human life. Of course, neither he nor his lawyers, family members nor his fellow Swedes could’ve foreseen what the Nobel Prize Foundation does to date. The magnitude and repercussion that the award has worldwide, not only to the laureates and receivers, but to the community. But also, in gourmet terms, the style, quality and luxury standards of the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm.

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Nobel Prize Banquet Table Setting | Nobel Museum, STOCKHOLM

But wait! Let’s not talk any further about this. Let’s go back to our sad but necessary departure. Let’s go back to packing, commuting, airports and maps. Let’s go back to history books, recipes, food and the road. The road to where, you may ask. Well, if you must know, not all the Nobel Prizes are awarded in Sweden. Nop. The Stockholm ceremony leaves one award aside. The Nobel Peace Prize has its own ceremony and banquet in foreign land. Sounds like a good excuse to travel, don’t you think? Well, you may or may not.. but it’s getting late for second thoughts, and I’m already too excited to stop.

Buckle up boys and girls, we’re travelling further west into the land of Odinsons and daughters. Where the clash of Nordic Asgardian tradition and the thirst for discovery took Vikings of rowing muscle all across the Atlantic before any other men. Where fjords cut the sea and the Sun touches the first of Scandinavian faces. To pay a visit to another landmark on the humble heritage we received from dear ol’ Alfred: The Nobel Peace Center, in Oslo. That right folks, we’re going to Norway!

SWEET(ISH) EMPIRE

So, if Gustav Vasa’s name is the one that echoes in the walls of history when discussing Swedish Monarchy; whispers of the Empire Era should bring King Gustav Adolphus’ name back to life on the same manner. And this chapter will explain the different choice of terms, Kingdom and/or Empire, by narrating a serious of events united by one word: conquest.

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Gustav Adolphus Square | STOCKHOLM

Now, it would take me a (very) long time to explain the geopolitical scenario that led into the Swedes expansion so I’ll try to make it easier by naming THE key element: The 30-Year War. A quick re-cap: this pseudo religious conflict that lasted from 1618 until 1648 was a “Catholics vs. Protestants” cover up for the fight for the civilized -European- world. Allied with the non-Catholic side, King Gustav Adolphus’ plan was to over-throne Ferdinand II and proclaim himself the new Holy Roman Emperor. Though before the beginning of the war some territories had already been seized from Russia and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the King would not survive the conflict; and would not see the major results brought by the signing of the postbellum “Peace of Westphalia” accords in 1638. Killed during the Battle of Lützen, in 1632, Gustav Adolphus missed to see Sweden’s enlargement.

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King Gustav Adolphus sarcophagus at Riddarholm Church | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

The accords gave the Scandinavian Empire the following territories as war indemnity: Western Pomerania, with the islands of Rügen, Usedom and Wollin, as well as the towns of Stettin, Greifswald, and Stralsund; a strip of Farther Pomerania on the right side of the Oder, including the towns of Damm and Gollnow, the town of Wismar, with the districts of Pod and Neukloster and the secularized bishoprics of Bremen-Verden, with the town of Wildeshausen. But neither the end of the war, nor the king’s death stopped Sweden from pushing its borders further and further away. In 1658, within the middle of the Second Northern War, and under the ruling of Charles X Gustav; the Treaty of Roskilde forced King Frederick III of Denmark-Norway to turn over a third of their territory to the Swedish Empire.

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Sunset Over the Riddarfjärden | STOCKHOLM

At this moment, especially after invading and finally conquering Poland in 1702, Sweden was the third-largest country in Europe by land area, only surpassed by Russia and Spain. But, as they say, even good things must come to an end, and the 18th century proved the Swedes that nothing lasts forever. Unfortunately for the Swedish Emperor, the Russian Tsardom always knew the power and reach of its own arm, and after the end of The Great Norther War, Sweden had already lost Estonia, Livonia, Ingria, and Southeast Finland to Peter The Great’s power. During what was left of the 1700s, Sweden did not have enough resources to maintain its territories outside Scandinavia, and most of them were lost, culminating with the loss in 1809 of eastern Sweden to Russia, which became the highly autonomous Grand Principality of Finland in Imperial Russia.

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Main Entrance to The Nobel Museum | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

And so, little by little, time forced the Swedish hand, and most that once was became lost. The Empire got decimated and all it was left with was a well renowned list of victories and conquests. A proudly marked calendar, with dates and names of old triumphs and expansion.  But, judgement should be prudent, as of the importance of such calendar. We, non-swedes, may consider this as vain and futile, but trust me I found a calendar -food wise- that in Swedish terms may interest you a bit more: specific calendar days are designated to the celebration of particular sugary specialties.

 Cinnamon Bun Day (Kanelbullens dag) is celebrated on 4 October. Buns filled with cream and almond paste known as semlor are eaten on “Shrove Tuesday” or “Fat Tuesday” (fettisdagen), as the Swedes call it, the first day of Lent. Waffles (våfflor) are consumed on 25 March, and creamy sponge cakes decorated with chocolate or marzipan silhouettes of Gustav Adolphus in November 6th in memory of monarch’s death at the Battle of Lützen.

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Traditional Swedish Kanelbullens

The average Swedish family eats 1.2 kilos of sweets per week. Most of it on Saturday: Sweets Day. Upheld mostly to protect people’s teeth and prevent dental cavities, the once-a-week tradition is historically linked to dubious medical practices. In the 1940s and 1950s, at Vipeholm Mental Hospital in Lund patients were fed large amounts of sweets to intentionally cause tooth decay, as part of a series of human experiments for research purposes. Based on findings from 1957 of the direct relationship between sweets and tooth decay, the Medical Board suggested Swedes eat sweets only once a week – an unwritten rule that many families still stick to.

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Streetview of “Caramella”, Stockholm’s most famous candy store

But within all the history, and all the rules. Within war and treaties. Empires and kingdoms. Tsars, kings, warriors and emperors. Blood and borders. Fire and death. Within all these elements of this tough, rough, barbaric world of men fighting men for men, there’s a Swedish Princess that has kept the mouths captivated for almost a century already: colouring the window displays of bakeries throughout Sweden is the all-time favourite Prinsesstårta. Topped with a bright pink sugar rose, comprising layers of yellow sponge cake lined with jam and vanilla custard, and then finished off with a heavy topping of whipped cream, the cake is carefully sealed with a thin layer of sugary sweet green marzipan.

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Traditional Cakes and Pastries display | Downtown STOCKHOLM

 

A relatively recent addition to Sweden’s culinary history, princess cake debuted in the 1920s, courtesy of Jenny Åkerström. She was a teacher to King Gustav V’s brother Prince Carl Bernadotte’s daughters -Princesses Margaretha, Märtha and Astrid- who loved it so much that they inspired its name. While the third week of September is officially “Princess Cake Week”, this popular cake is now eaten during special festivals and is used to mark many milestones in people’s lives. Today, it comes in a variety of colors – from the classic green to yellow for Easter, red at Christmas, orange for Halloween and white for weddings. I know I’m very far from becoming Sweden’s new Emperor, but trust me when I tell you that, after I tasted my (first) slice of Prinsesstårta I said to myself: “It’s worth the fight!”.

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A slice of the Prinsesstårta | Downtown STOCKHOLM

Of Kings and Pigs

Writers know that words can, as ingredients in a recipe, change the nature of the written Word depending on the use given. We can all understand that using one cup of flour is not the same as a cup and a half, as using the word “prey” instead of “pray”. Homophones have the same pronunciation but carry a different meaning under a different spelling. As you wouldn’t use cayenne pepper instead of black pepper; the choice of terms while writing sometimes demands surgical precision. And all of this, why? Because on our next chapters we will discuss two very similar, but at the same time very different, periods in the history of Sweden; and we must stress the need of that same precision. Because, trust me, there’s a reason why we use one or the other term when referring to either The Swedish Kingdom or The Swedish Empire. Come on, join the joyride!

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Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

It is, indeed, very difficult to provide an actual date -or year- for the genesis of the monarchic period. However, Eric The Victorious is the first king listed in the annals of the Swedish Crown, and he was named ruler in the year 970 A.D. This was a pagan kingdom, but in the years to come, especially after the first half of the 11th century, Christianity became the most prevalent religion. And though it might have taken until the 12th century for paganism to be almost completely replaced, Sweden is counted as a Christian nation since the year 1050.

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Stockholm’s Cathedral of Saint Nicholas | Gamla Stan

This period of time, mostly until 1400, it’s characterized for countless power struggles between the Nordic kingdoms. But, in the middle of the 14th century Sweden was struck by the Black Death and the population of Sweden was seriously decimated. As existed by 1348 did not reach the same numbers again until the 1800s. It was also, during this time, that the 3 great kingdoms were united under one monarch: officially since 1397, Sweden, Norway and Denmark were ruled by King Magnus Eriksson.

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The Three Nordic Crowns

And so for 126 years, national nobility tended to local affairs, while a supreme patriarch looked over international matters. But it was then, within the thirst for self-respect and the fight against tyranny, on the 6th of June 1523, that Swedes made Gustav Vasa their king. He broke the tri-nation union, abolished Catholicism, instituting Protestantism and kick started what would later come to be known as The Swedish Golden Era. One of the key elements for King Gustav’s success was the importance that Stockholm had as a trading post in the Baltic Sea. He developed a system of free and independent exchange, outside the one ruled by a commercial and defensive confederation of Norther-German merchant guilds, called “The Hanseatic League”, and their market towns.

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Monument to King Gustav Vasa | The Nordic Museum – Djurgården, STOCKHOLM

Another key element was his popularity. When Sweden did develop, the fact that the peasantry had traditionally been free meant that more of the economic benefits flowed back to them rather than going to a feudal landowning class. The king was not only a national man, but also a giving and caring man. All these benefits helped the people of Sweden to grow proud and with a sense of nationalism that was expressed in every piece of their cultural machinery. From science, to art. From business, to education. From politics, to agriculture. And here is where we stop. From, crops to dairy. From spirits to meat. Meat. Oh, yes, meat. One, in particular. The Scandinavian favorite: pork.

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Köttbullar w/Mashed Potatoes and Lingonberry Jam | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

To this day, the consumption of pork in Sweden has always been high. The country has a population of 9 million inhabitants, which on average consume more than 24 kg of pork meat per year (corresponds to 37 kg carcass per person and year). A high proportion of this meat is sold to the consumers as fresh meat. Most of the pork is produced in Sweden, but pork is also one of Sweden’s major imports, mainly from neighbor countries. However, local farmers use a “Svenskt Kött” (Swedish Meat) origin label that indicates that the product comes from animals born, reared, slaughtered and processed in Sweden. Trends show that more and more Swedish consumers are looking for ingredients with clear origins which represent values to which they can subscribe and with which they can identify.

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Pan-Fried Bacon w/Raggmunk and Lingonberries | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

Pork, in Sverige, comes in all shapes and colors. The most famous and trendy Swede dishes are made with pork meat, from “Köttbullar”, to “Raggmunk” and of course “Fläskkorvs”. And, as King Gustav I did, back in his day, pig producers receive some economic support from the state: there’s a regional subsidy to production in the northern 60% of the country. Pig producers applying higher animal wellfair, above the national law, receive a certain payment. Compensation of higher costs for castrations performed using anesthesia, as well as for “immuno-castration”. Economic state support is also given in case of outbreaks of certain diseases, such as Salmonella infections.

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Fläskkorv Between Bread | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

A step-in-Stone(age)

While mention may have already been made regarding the “nutrition vs. feasting” difference, I think that we can use further explanatory words whilst taking the opportunity of introducing the next topic: Bromme culture. Where nutrition talks about prime necessities fulfillment, feasting searches for the pot of gold at the end of the taste rainbow. One walks the steps to put the body at ease, while the other one plays culinary instruments in search of a vibrant but at the same time soothing neurological symphony.

If you try to picture the year 10,000 BC, close to where the city of Malmö is located today, SW Sweden, you could see a group of Paleolithic hunters looking for reindeer -mainly-, moose, wolverine and beaver. Back in the day, when nomads use to follow the prey not to starve to death, nutrition was the only law into effect. For these Bromme tribes of hunter-gatherer-fishers, nothing was as important as biological demands. But, with wood and flint, through tundra and time, a long came civilization and with it, agriculture, the prime element of feasting.

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Royal Palace of The Swedish Crown | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

That being said, first written evidence of Norse men, came by at the end of the 1st century AD, with mentions of powerful  fleets of longships. Vikings. What we know today as the mighty Swedish Viking Era took place -mostly- within the 8th and 11th century AD, period of time in which these seamen travelled East and South, going to Finland, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Black Sea through the Dnieper south to the Aegean Sea through Constantinople, and even as far as what it’s known today as Irak.

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Inlagd Sill | Pickled Herring w/Sour Cream and Dill Onions over Rye – STOCKHOLM

And though horned helmets, broad swords and thick shields are the first things that may come to mind when thinking about mighty Vikings, their amazing sailing skills gave them more than the clamors of conquest and the roar of war, they also gave them fish; and a place within the top 5 best fishing cultures of all history.

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Salmon Gravlax w/Dill Mustard | Gamla Stan, STOCKHOLM

The swedes seafood quartette stars: salmon, herring, shrimp and lobster. However, nowadays, pork, beef and poultry hold the premiere positions over the dinner table. The prehistoric jewels of hunting and fishing have been, little by little, being left behind. But, as immortalized in petrified amber, they are still praised, preserved and appreciated.

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Sillsalat -Herring Salad- | Södermalm, STOCKHOLM

Mamma mia, here I go again!

Far from yelling “land ahoy” from the crow’s nest, I’m proud to say that I was able to witness, from the main deck, the moment the first sign of Swedish shore appeared in our infinite horizon. We had travelled through the Baltic for more than 12 hours, and well after the Sun had risen, with a gorgeous escort of seagulls, we traded the calm waters of the Botnia Gulf for the tricky but translucent path that leads from the open sea to a maze of rock formations, shoals, anti-clockwise currents, isles and islands you must first plow through before you can dock at Stockholm harbor. As we did.

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There’s a thin thread of constant melody, composed by mere ripple effect of historical consequences, which lead cultural cornerstones to be similar throughout Scandinavian territory. It’s my duty to inform you that, much of what you may read could sound similar to what it was said in previous posts, but it may help understanding just to remember the following: this vast land of white nights, nature and seamen it’s known today as the private stronghold to four very independent nations, once united under a pair of warring empires. And though, borders and flags (VERY similar flags) have been reestablished, what makes them similar it’s stronger that what takes them apart.

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That being said, it’s not hard to see the line drawn in the sand when talking about national identity between these 4 brothers. But, when contemplating the outline of cultural prime elements such as art, religion or language, it won’t take you long to see the similarities. Same thing happens with their cuisine. Mostly governed by the same kind of weather, and with almost the same soil and water, natural resources don’t tend to vary a lot from one territory to the next. And, although technique may change the final product, once the curtain rises the characters are usually repeated regardless of the stage’s location: berries, mushrooms and tubers; pork, fish and game; dairy and rye.

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And so, not to sound like a broken (ABBA) record; I’ve decided to show you what makes the difference -food wise- and also take some time to pay respect to a couple of Sweden’s cooking landmarks. I’ll also take you for a walk around town, from Stockholm’s eclectic center to the beautiful and world renowned Gamla Stan; where time seemed to have stopped its compulsive march. We’ll jump all the way from the Djurgården to the gorgeous Södermalm, and I’ll put my narrative skills to the test: let’s see if I can tell you all about how cave men became mighty Viking sailors, long before these last ones turned into empire troopers that united the region under the same banner. Let’s see if I can cover millennia of history without boring the hell outta you, my dearest. Let’s see.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to SWEDEN!

FINLAND: TO SUM UP..

The Suomi episode has finished, but the adventure continues and we must answer the road’s calling. As, from that infinite line that forms the horizon where day after day we lose the Sun, I can hear the wind luring me to travel West. Like sirens used to do with the men at sea. Which, in this case, comes as a GREAT analogy: the next trip will be across the waters of the Baltic. Ahoy “mateys”, we’ll jump aboard a Scandinavian vessel that will take us all the way from Helsinki to Stockholm. That’s right folks! Our next stop is none other than the capital of (whatever’s left from) the Svenska Empire! The birthplace of ABBA and IKEA! Yeah, we are going to SWEDEN!

But as Hansel and Gretel, we only move forward by leaving breadcrumbs behind to remind us where we are coming from.  In this occasion, before jumping to the other side of the sea, I’d like to post a little summary of what, after my time in Finland, I consider are the most important facts and figures of local Finn cuisine.

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Throughout my Finnish experience and by means of all previous post regarding this wonderful piece of land; I’ve tried to make as much emphasis as possible as to which are the key elements that stablish the base of their culinary culture. So, trying not to be too repetitive, let’s recap a bit. Shall we?

Beverages: regardless of what it was already been discussed about regulations and how Finns do drink, what they drink is really a very interesting subject. In terms of alcoholic beverages, ciders and beers (mostly pale lagers) are very popular. And despite the fact that there are several types of home-brewed alcoholic beverages: sima (mead), sahti (traditional beer) and kilju (sugar wine, a notorious drink traditionally fermented without flavoring), Finland gave the world a few very international brands: Koskenkorva, Jaloviina and (of course) Finlandia vodka.

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On the other side of the drinking table, the list on non-alcoholics MUST start with coffee: Finland has the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world, but during meals milk and sour milk (piimä, a fermented milk) are popular too, even among adults.

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Food: a lot has already been said about berries and mushrooms. And we’ve already stated (as clear as possible) what do bread and dairy products mean to these people. So, let’s take those four as the sides on the base of the pyramid, and escalating all the way to the top, we’ll take a few words to describe a bit more about meat.

If you take a second to remember what we discussed on that “street markets” post, your memory may bring thoughts about the importance that both fishing and hunting have in Finnish culture. Anything that falls out from the mass production universe, comes as a result of that special and very respectful bond between Finns and Mother Nature. You’ll find that there’s a very specific and strict set of regulations regarding fishing and hunting on Suomi territory, and there are followed to the dot.

What comes as a really interesting fact is that, from the 66 kg of “mass produced” meat that Finns eat per year, the most popular meats being pork, beef, chicken and duck; approximately one third of this is eaten as sausages. Yes, that´s right, A THIRD! Finns eat, approximately, 22 kg of sausages per year. Next time you’re at the groceries store buying sausages, have the butcher check the weight on one of those, and then work your math up to how many sausages these guys eat in 365 days. You’ll be amazed, trust me!

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Alright! That’s basically all (I can say ‘bout Finnish food). And, as I said in the beginning, the adventure continues; but I’ll never forget my time in Helsinki. Finland it’s a very beautiful country, with very nice people. They have a very empowering sense of belonging that you can see translated over the table in every meal. In this world of meaningless opulence and alien shame, there’s a Scandinavian nation that practices humble happiness and silent pride, giving back to life and land; with their eyes set in that unknown tomorrow which they’ll embrace with hope, will and confidence.

It’s time for me to board my ship. Crack open a cold bottle of Corona and face the setting Sun. Sweden, here we go.

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A Traditional Way to Finnish

You know those horror movies that start with a bunch of friends all excited about spending a weekend away from home? Running shopping cart races in the isles of the supermarket, throwing backpacks and iceboxes to the back of a car? You know! Their all singing 70’s and 80’s rock ‘n roll classics while driving down the road that leads to that inevitable fatal fate. Well, that’s how our weekend started. In fact, you might find it difficult to believe but leaving all scary innuendos aside we were actually planning to spend our nights in a “Cabin in the Woods”.

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Our “Cabin In The Woods”

Located 60km (38 miles) NW away from Helsinki, the city of Vihti was waiting for our arrival. A small town in the Uusimaa region, it has a population of almost 29,000 habitants and (as almost 95% of Finland) lots and lots of Nature. Free, respected, undamaged Nature. And that my friends, that weekend, was actually something really important for us: our plan was to have a traditional Finnish experience including listening to Suomi music, having a Sauna and going mushroom and berrie hunting in order to collect our ingredients for our Finnish cookout. That’s right. We’d take from Mother Nature all that she was willing to provide, respecting the laws and treaties that protect her.

And that, after unloading our things from the car, was the first thing that we did. We put our boots on, grabbed a couple of bags and pairs of gloves, and we went hunting. Our preys? Chanterelle mushrooms and Blueberries.

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While in eastern Finland almost all edible fungi are consumed, Chanterelles and ceps pop up after Midsummer and are popular in the whole country. They tend to grow in clusters in mossy coniferous forests, but are also often found in mountainous birch forests and among grasses and low-growing herbs. They are used in soups, sauces, stews, pie fillings, or -as we did- simply fried in a pan with onions as a side dish.

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Also known as bilberry, the vaccinium myrtillus or “European Blueberry” (along with wild raspberries, and lingonberries) are found in almost every part of Finland. Bilberries are frequently used in Finnish cuisine, both as an ingredient, such as bilberry pie, and also served with cream or ice cream. They are often used on top of viili and other yogurt-type dishes. Going blueberry hunting is really common among Finns.

Once the hunting was done, we went back to the house and we got the fire for the sauna started. Invented in Finland sometime before the Middle Ages, saunas are a quintessential element in the cultural structure that define its birthplace. The term, “sauna”, comes from Ancient Finnish language and it makes reference to a “bath” or “bathroom”. It’s based in the idea of a small room or building designed as a place to experience dry or wet heat sessions.

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In Finland a sauna session can be a social affair in which the participants recline in temperatures typically between 70 and 100 °C (158 and 212 °F). This induces relaxation and promotes sweating. The Finns use a bundle of birch twigs with fresh leaves, to gently slap the skin and create further stimulation of the pores and cells. And that’s how we did it. We even rubbed our bodies with honey as a skincare treatment. It was my first sauna experience and I gotta say, I really enjoyed it! It was really relaxing and I’m definitely doing THAT again!

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After a quick shower we head back to the kitchen and we got dinner started. After cleaning and washing our mushrooms and blueberries we mixed the chanterelles with some diced onions and heavy cream, on a pan over a medium high heat. We steamed a couple of potatoes, sautéed some kale with grated carrots and we put a tomato, dill and crème fraiche salad together.  After the sauna session we had actually decided not to make the dinner too heavy, so it was all veggies and some good ol’ rye. It had been a long day so, with an inch of fear of being murdered by a guy wearing an ice-hockey mask we when straight to bed.

The next morning came soon enough. After a nice breakfast, which included our fresh blueberries, we grabbed our gear and we ventured ourselves through the deepness of the forest. We walked for a couple of hours until we ran into the lake where we sat for a while. Talking and resting took time away, and almost without noticing it we were back on our feet, making our way through the green.

The weekend had reached its twilight and it was time to go back to Helsinki. Interestingly enough, the Sun was also setting over my Finnish adventure, it was my last day in Suomi land and the only things left to do were to pack my bags, go over my notes, review the schedule for the next day and say my goodbyes. And I did.

Finn Alkohol, easy as 5-4-3-2-1-0

There’s a reason why most Finns find the 5 to 0 sequence funny. It represents more than a simple countdown, it is more than six numeric symbols in cardinal order; it’s also a reminder. If you read between the Suomi lines you’ll find that it says the following: “5th of April 1932, 10.00 AM”. And why would that date and time be important, you may wonder. Well, let’s just put a pin on it, for now, and we’ll come back to it in a minute. Let’s talk first about a current subject. A matter of this, our own, age and era. Alcohol consumption.

According to recent studies, Finland, who stands in the Top 10 List of Countries with most alcohol consumption per capita; has suffered a raise in the figures that indicate drinking as a social/health/security issue. And, though Finns are drinking less that what they used to, 10 years ago, recent statistics indicate a 30% increase in the number of medical treatments required because of an accident or medical condition caused by alcohol abuse.

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The KOFF Brewerie “Pub On Rails” serves draught beer during rides

Where consumption of alcoholic beverages may have decreased, Finland is still the Scandinavian country consuming most alcohol per person. And, unfortunately, cutbacks in the public sector have, since 2010, made it increasingly difficult to receive therapy-based rehabilitation treatments. Experts explain that the cutbacks tactic is dangerous since Finland has half a million risk users and that is large private companies that profit on the cost reductions. The public health perspective has taken a back seat to individual rights and freedoms, and benefits for big business. –source W.H.O.

But, this looks surprisingly senseless if you have also to acknowledge the fact that Finland’s center-right government has agreed to free up the country’s notoriously strict rules on the sale and advertising of alcohol, including the right to buy a round of drinks in most establishments. Yes, that’s right and no, I’m not wrong. It might seem difficult to believe, even to understand, but this is exactly what I’m saying: this is a country with such drinking related problems where getting a drink doesn’t come so easy. And here is where we take that pin off.

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If you try hard enough, you’d remember me telling you that it wasn’t until the first two decades of the 20th Century that Finland became a country of its own. In fact, I’ve even mentioned that their first presidential elections took place in the year 1919 (after the “cease fire” of WW1). One of the actions taken by the elected government was to establish prohibition. That’s right, the distribution and consumption of alcoholic beverages was forbidden in Finland. It took them 13 years to lift such prohibition edict, but it wasn’t like in the 30’s in the US. No, this “freedom” came with a price: a referendum was proclaimed, and birth was given to a government-owned company that would hold (till this day in age) the only retail license to sell strong alcoholic beverages. Its name is “Alko”, and its first stores opened for the very first time on the morning of the 5th of April, 1932, at 10.00 AM.

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Alko Store | Downtown Helsinki, FIN.

Originally known as “Oy Alkoholiliike Ab”, Alko, is the national alcoholic beverage retailing monopoly in Finland. It is the only store in the country which retails beer over 4.7% ABV, wine and spirits. Of course, the word “monopoly” and “perfect competition” do not go hand in hand, in fact last February 3rd, 2005, the Finnish Food Marketing Association (NGO) asked the European Union to challenge the legality of Alko’s monopoly, which it disputes. But this isn’t the only thing that’s being challenged these past couple of years, on the list of strict regulations under the “Alko Act” you can read the following: Alkos cannot have a window display. They can advertise beverages that contain up to 22% alcohol. In practice, manufacturers or distributors advertise their products but there is a total ban on advertising beverages stronger than 22%. Products with under 22% ABV can be purchased by individuals at least 18 years of age. The minimum age for products containing over 22% ABV is 20. When asked at checkout a customer must prove his or her age with an official ID. Alcohol will not be sold to visibly intoxicated customers or when there is a reason to suspect misuse or illegal supply to a person who would not be authorized to buy. Persons under the age of 18 are prohibited from entering an Alko unless accompanied by an adult. Also, the stores are opened until 6.00PM Mon-Thu, until 8.00PM on Fridays, until 4.00PM on Saturdays and closed on Sundays and all public and religious holidays.

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Alko Store | Downtown Helsinki, FIN.

The most eye-catching proposed changes affect bars and restaurants. Drinkers will be able to buy more than one portion of alcohol at a time, order drinks to take home, and even pay with Finnish credit cards. Bars and clubs will also be able to stay open until 4.00AM without special permits, and the ban on advertising “Happy Hour” will be lifted. Also, music festivals can host beer tents outside roped-off areas, microbreweries will be able to sell drinks stronger that 5.5% on site, and alcohol sales can be freely advertised in print and online, and the minimum age for drinking will drop from 18 to 16, under appropriate supervision. –source BBC News

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Alko Store | Downtown Helsinki, FIN.

So, there you have it. There’s a whole lot of new information for you to digest and, eventually, come up with a choice of sides. Is the “Alko Act” too strict? Does it create an unfair retail market scenario? If the company it’s government-owned, and the revenue that it generates contributes to state funds, wouldn’t a drop in their sales (consequence of the proposed changes) affect the Government budget? If that’s so, wouldn’t that affect the public sector even more, making the therapy-based treatments more difficult to fund? Does Finland need proper lobbying or “Happy Hours”? Does making something legal, turns it automatically into something good? Is the number 16 worse or better than the number 18? What about the numbers 20, or 21? What do you think?

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Alko Store | Downtown Helsinki, FIN.

Let me tell you what I think. It’s a matter of responsibility. But every single thing has to start at the beginning. In my case, my beginning, my genesis or origin was “home”. My home, with my family. The place where my parents taught me not be afraid of alcohol, and how to respect its consumption and to understand the consequences of its abuse. My first steps into drinking were at home. I was younger than 16 and I learned how to enjoy a beer. A drink. A moment. And more than 16 years have passed since those first steps were taken and I find myself in complete control of my drinking habits, and what’s even more important, allowing myself to enjoy life regardless of my choice of beverage.

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It’s understandable to witness this arguments for and against the “Alko Act” as if they were disputed over a map with colored flags and miniature tanks. This is a battlefield and a lot it’s at stake. What’s to be gained, what’s to be sacrificed and which will the consequences be are three very different things. And though it was the Finnish who gave the “Molotov Cocktail” its name (during the “Winter Wars” of 1939), I would love to see that 5-0 countdown not ending with a “boom!”.

FINN PANTRY: DINNER

Moving forward. Adding new chapters to this digital cookbook; I’d like to change the vive a little bit, though. So, with your permission, taking into account the fact that we’ve already walked down the roads that led us to breakfast, brunch and lunch. I’d love to have the opportunity to share with you a dinner recipe. But, not just any recipe. Falling under the same paradigm: I’ll be doing the cooking, you’ll be doing the learning; and all we’re going to use to create this dish are typical Finnish produces. Why? Well.. we are in Finland. Same reason why you eat Chinese food when you’re in China. The only difference is that folks over there just call it “food”.

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Fresh, handpicked, Blueberries | Vihti, FINLAND.

But, finally moving towards a dining experience won’t be the only change ‘round here. No sir. I’m going to crank it up a bit, skill-wise, and I’ll mix the traditional way of cooking with some French dogma, and some good ol’ techniques. Sometimes, we chefs, can’t resist the temptation to shine. Sometimes the sin it’s not gluttony, it’s just pride. So, in case you’re wondering “what’s for dinner?” the answer is: Reindeer with Blueberries Coulis, cooked au flambé, steamed Baby Potatoes and Spiced Goat Cheese on the side.

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Wild Forest Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus)

So, let’s start with the star of the movie: reindeer meat. As stated before, hunting plays a very important role in Finnish culture. It’s not only related to cooking. As with most animals, the eating part of their bodies it’s not the only thing that we have learned how to consume. And, in order for you to understand how important this is in Scandinavia, I’m going to take you on a trip. Where to? Lapland. That’s right, the largest and northernmost region of Finland. Why do we have to go all the way to Lapland? Well, if you must know, this may help you understand why reindeer is so important in this part of the world.

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Sami Camp | Lapland, FINLAND.

Lapland is considered to be part of the territory populated by the indigenous tribe called “Sami”. The Sami are the northernmost indigenous people of Europe, and their towns and villages can be found in far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland (of course), and the Kola Peninsula of Russia. Why is this important for us? Well, their best-known mean of livelihood is semi-nomadic reindeer herding. About 10% of the Sami are connected to reindeer herding, providing them with meat, fur, and transportation. For traditional, environmental, cultural, and political reasons; in some parts of Scandinavia, reindeer herding is legally reserved only for Sami people. But enough with the lessons Professor, and let’s hit back to the kitchen!

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Spiced Goat Cheese

Not much more needs to be said about how important berries (blackberries, in this case) and goat cheese are for the Finn. I think we covered enough of the subject on our “home-breakfast post”. Also, on our text about Suomi markets, I talked about how Scandinavian weather has conditioned agriculture, hence the high volume of root veggies, such as today’s Baby Potatoes, which are grown in Finnish territory. So, what is it that’s keeping us from cooking? Well, I just wanted to take a moment to discuss a very crucial part of today’s recipe: how to flambé.

Many of you may think that the usage of this technique it’s related to actually cooking whatever is in the pan, because of the flames. But, actually if any, only superficial burnt can be achieved by it, and this technique’s principle is based on burning the alcohol you have added to the pan fast. When the ethanol ignites, as any other fuel, it consumes. Besides the presentation use: taking the dish to the table with flames still burning over it, the idea is basically to keep all the aromas and flavors that you can obtain from the beverage used, and get rid of the alcohol the best way possible.

The Know How:

  • Roll up your goat cheese in a piece of aluminum foil covered with olive oil and minced dill. Refrigerate until needed. Give it, at least, 2 hours.
  • Gently wash and dry your fresh blueberries and once ready, place them in a saucepan with fresh lemon juice and white sugar.

Fire Games:

  • Place your saucepan over medium heat. Once your lemon juice starts to simmer, and your sugar starts to dissolve but before your blueberries start to break down add your alcohol (I used Grand Marnier, but you could also use rum or Cointreau) turn the heat up to high. Using the flames from the stove (or a lighter/match) ignite your alcohol vapors and let it consume whilst stirring your mix using only the pan and circle movements from the handle. As soon as the flames are gone, turn down you heat back to medium low and, using a wooden spoon, help breaking those blackberries. Always avoid getting the sauce to boil and once you’re happy with the color, consistence and taste; pass it through a fine mesh strainer and cool it.

 

  • Dice an onion, 2 chalotes and using the blade of your knife to crush a couple of garlic cloves against your cutting board. Set aside.
  • Heat up 4 cups of water on an empty steaming pot, once boiling add your Baby Potatoes and cover to cook. Give it 15’ to 20’ approx.
  • Cut your reindeer meat in stripes and throw it to a pan with hot olive oil. Do not move it. Let it stick against the surface of the pan and once it’s caramelized on once side, turn it over and let it cook on the other side.
  • Add your onion, chalotes and garlic to the pan. Once they start to loosen up, start stirring and add a bit of black pepper and sea salt to the mix.
  • Pour in the rest of your alcohol and proceed to flambé again, you’ll notice that the caramelization on the bottom of the pan starts to lift, and starts to mix with the beverage and both the fat from the meat and the juices from the vegetables. This is what we call to deglaze the pan. Turn the heat down to medium low and add a nub of cold butter.
  • Take your spiced cheese out from the fridge and cut it in thick slices. Cut your potatoes ALMOST in half, and place a slice of cheese inside the incision. Sprinkle with olive oil and add sea salt to taste.
  • Put some of your hot potatoes with melting cheese on the side of a nice portion of your reindeer meat and pour your warm blackberry coulis on top of it. Slice some good ol’ rye to help your fork and ENJOY!

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Finn Pantry: Brunch

It’s been some time since you guys last read anything related to me doing more of the cooking than the eating. (I know! My bad!) But well, there’s always to make amends to those people that one loves, or in this case the strangers on the other side of a screen.

But, if I’ll be doing all the cooking, you guys MUST learn something out of it: this post, as the next, will be a “recipe post”. But, not just any recipe. I’ll take 2 dishes, and I’ll give you what I think the Finn version should be, taking into account the items you can find at any Suomi pantry.

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So, let’s get started. For my brunch recipe, I’ve chosen scrambled eggs with salmon. This rich and powerful duet it’s perfect for summer mornings, hand in hand with a glass of Prosecco or a hot cup of coffee. If you are ever face to face with this treat, mix of French cuisine and left overs, do not hesitate. Trust me.

Ok, enough chitchat, let’s get down to it!

Ingredients? Well, eggs and salmon (look everyone, It’s Captain Obvious!) are key here. And, of course, bread; to hold these guys together. Like the glue of an unwanted friendship. Is that it? Well, basically yes. Those are the 3 levels of flavor. This is NOT Julia Child’s Beef Bourguignon. And remember, it doesn’t have to be COMPLICATED to be CLASSY, or even TASTEFUL/YUMMY/GOOD.

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But, Chef Marce, how will you make it Finnish? Well children, here’s the Scandinavian twist. Pay close attention: I’ll be using salmon from the Baltic Sea, caught and lightly smoked in Suomi territory. Also, instead of cream, I’ll be scrambling our eggs with a touch of crème fraîche, and I’ll add freshly cut dill (ever so Finnish) to the mixture. Once those eggs are done, I’ll be serving them on top of a slightly butter-toasted slice of rye, covered with the richest layer of sliced goat cheese that Finland can offer.

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The Know How:

1) Slice the bread and toast on a pan on low heat with a nub of butter until toasted on both sides.

2) In another pan on medium heat: break your eggs, add butter, and stir until starting to clump. Add your crème fraîche and stir gently.

3) Take your salmon and goat cheese out from the fridge and carefully, start slicing them. Not too thin, not too thick. Add freshly chopped dill to your eggs and keep stirring.

3) Remove your eggs from heat while they are still soft. Top your rye toasts with the goat cheese, and cover it with a generous amount of scrambled eggs. Finally, top with smoked salmon and serve.

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