Ever since the age of the Vikings, food has always been the main reason for families to get together. Huddled over a bonfire, Nordic men would bring the catch of the day to the women while children run to nearby bushes to forage for freshly picked berries to be made into jams and sauces. These practices, which are still done today, have always been an important part of the Nordic lifestyle that (even with advanced technology) has not changed much when it comes to producing and processing homecooked food.
To this day, families have a fun habit of venturing into the woods to harvest berries, which grow wildly and abundantly in the North. Back in their own kitchens, they brew their own juices and cook their own jams, which they later use to pair with food. An example would be lingonberries. Cooked as a condiment for many Nordic dishes, it has a sweet and sour taste that is normally favored by many Scandinavians. One particular berry that stands out is the cloudberry, a rare form of berry found mainly in the Arctic Circle in the northernmost part of Finland called Lapland. It matches perfectly with leipäjuusto (bread cheese) or used as garnish in many Finnish dishes.
Another pantry staple is salmon, a popular and widely used fish in the European culinary scene but is very special in preparation when it comes to Nordic cuisine. As done by my husband and his fathers before him, the salmon is typically placed in a smoking “box” made by the cooks themselves. In some cases, leppä leaves are bunched together and heated inside the compartment with the fish, a process that gives it a distinct smoky flavor. Special condiments are then used to complement the dish such as a creamy chanterelle mushroom sauce, homemade tsatzikis and the family “grandma” (mummo) recipes made mainly with crème fraîche and forest berries.
Another popular fish is the pike perch, which can be easily caught in Finland’s many lakes. This fish, although abundant, costs more than salmon and it is typically fried in butter, its skin crisped.
When not in the mood for seafood, the Nords turn to reindeer meat, which, more often than not, makes it daily to the dining table, prepared either smoked, stewed, or grilled. If there is something rare that comes in abundance during Nordic summers, it is wild mushrooms. Every year, hundreds of varieties crop up in the forests waiting to be picked. Although not all mushrooms are edible, those that are bring out some of the best flavors in most Nordic dishes, and the most famous, favored and highly prized of the lot is the chanterelle. Known for its rarity in Central Europe, it normally grows only in Scandinavia where cool weather is constant. It is considered the “golden flower” of the North, the reason for its high price tag of almost 10 euros a kilo or oftentimes more.
If there is a dish the Finns cannot do without, it’s pies, also called piirakka. It is so well loved that it has become a fixture in many Finnish kitchens, evidenced by the outright display of a wide variety of flours, spices, yeast and sugar on the shelves, ready and waiting for the cook to knead them together at any time. Delicious meat, fish or spinach are later stuffed into the pies made from homemade filo pastry or thick dough.
The healthiest element on every Nordic table is the signature brown bread. Visit a supermarket and hundreds of its varieties are on hand to greet you—from limppurye buns to vaasanpala and näkkileipä or rye crackers. The most famous variety of all is the reikäleipä. Already famous a thousand years ago, this is simply rye mixed with water, yeast and salt and hung to dry in a ring-like shape over the kitchen counter. During war, wives would make this with the little they had to feed an entire family. Brown bread is not only a staple but the essence of any Nordic way of life.
Although less known than those of its more famous European neighbors, Nordic gastronomy is a hidden treasure worth the exploration. Its beautiful scenery and people also add to the unique flavors of the mix. Above all, the purity and simplicity in food preparation while staying close to tradition and using nature as its main ingredient, is truly a gift to the modern culinary world.
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