When talking about gastronomy, Finland is not the first country that comes to mind. They may not have the most distinctive kitchen culture of all of Europe, but they do have dishes that you will not easily find in other European countries. Most of what is cooked is linked to locally grown crops, although foreign influences are gaining ground. What does the Finnish diet look like and how do they think about food?
In older days, people started their day with a portion of hot porridge. This is still done by many, and universities for example serve porridge for breakfast as well. Cornflakes and alikes are becoming more popular, while dark bread and cheese are often served along with the cereal/diary component. The most important element in breakfast is that it needs to be filling. It is generally taken at around 7 in the morning and has to last until lunch which is taken at 11 or 12.
`Lunch is suitable for commercial business meetings, but it risks to be seen as bribery`
Lunch is not often eaten at home. It is handed out for free in schools and at extremely discounted rates in universities. Office employees are likely to enjoy their lunch in a small lunch restaurants, which are often located on the company`s premises. Even though Finnish people are used to getting served hot lunches, they often drink milk alongside their meals. Drinking alcohol during lunch is likely to get you funny looks. You risk being taken for an alcoholic.
Panu (25, photo), who studies Environmental Science, and who is hosting me in Kuopio, tells me that lunch is also the most suitable venue for business meetings. But one needs to be careful with that. Everything in Finland that may possibly in some way or another be related to bribery, is considered not done. Lunch meetings with commercial trading partners are therefore a better idea than inviting a local civil servant to join the meal.
Lunch is not the last one of the hot meals during the day. The procedure is repeated in the evening, around 5 or 6 o`clock, when people get home after work. If people happen to visit at that time, they are invited to eat along. Otherwise, the meal will be enjoyed in the family sphere. Dinner is usually a fairly simple meal, consisting of potatoes, meat or meat balls, and vegetables or salad. Pasta and rice are becoming more popular, but most of the meals are still organised around locally grown potatoes. Even the rest of the meal is likely to be based on products that are traditionally cultivated in Finland: tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage, mushrooms and berry sauce. Elk and rain deer meat are also eaten, but they are more expensive than beef or pork. `If you like to eat wild animals, you`d better know somebody who is a hunter`, says Panu, while he also explains that the hunting season for elk is starting at the beginning of October of each year.
Both lunch and dinner are likely to include meat. However, contrary to Central European countries, many alternatives are available to vegetarians. Fish, usually caught in one of the many local lakes, is the easiest replacement. Many restaurants sell vegetarian dishes. Some are even vegetarian-only. Panu considers himself a vegetarian, although he does eat meat every now and then. `My reason to be vegetarian is just because I know too much about the production process and how much resources are needed to produce meat. I do eat it when it`s served to me, but I don`t buy it myself in the supermarket.`
Fast food is becoming more popular, but it does not have the vast support it gets in Western Europe. McDonald`s does have a noticeable presence throughout Finland, but people do not have deep-frying pans in there houses to prepare chips themselves. Pizza is more popular in that respect, especially among students and even more particularly on hang-over days.
I am collecting all this information over dinner, which consists of Kalakukko, a loaf of dark bread that is filled with fish. It is extremely heavy and needs to be eaten with butter to make it less dry. It is special for the Kuopio region, as the fish comes from the the lakes surrounding Kuopio. Fishing is free almost everywhere in Finland so people can hunt for their own ingredients if they like. The forest is home to many types of mushrooms and berries, which can also be picked freely. They serve as a base for many local dishes. The same goes for herbs although `people are losing contact with nature. They are starting to forget how much food can be collected from the forest. They now think more in terms of prepacked supermarket food or imported vegetables`, according to Panu.
Special events in Finland are often accompanied by specific meals. Hot pea soup is served on Thursdays and/or on election days. Lamb is often eaten for Easter, ham on Christmas Eve and Turkey on Christmas Day. The arrival of the new potato harvest is celebrated in June. It marks the start of a new food season, when you can find an endless variety of fresh fruits and vegetables at many markets across Finland. The ironic denomination of national vegetable is reserved for Makkara, which is actually a sausage. It is referred to as a vegetable because even vegetarians will eat it when they are out in the nature and see a chance to build a fire.
Most of the above products will be appreciated by foreign visitors. Someone who is not from Holland or the rest of Scandinavia may prefer to refrain from trying Salmiakki: a popular type of liquorice. It comes as an alcoholic drink, as a sweet and even serves as filling for chocolate. Bon app?tit!
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