Going Back To Basics: Rediscovering Slow Food in Finland

A boy pushes a wheelbarrow of dried fish, 1930s. Credit: Fred Runeberg / Suomen Valokuvataiteen Museo.

A hundred years ago, markets all over Finland were the focal point for society.

This was the place you came not just for bread, eggs and vegetables, but milk, fish and meat as well.

It was an era of slow food, slow growing, slow cooking; where people had a deep appreciation for the livestock, crops and land around them.

“Before we had this really high standard for hygiene, it was normal to sell meat outside in the marketplace” says Jari Harju, senior researcher at Helsinki City Museum.

“If you wanted fresh foods… then you went to the market place. Some people even had big gardens inside the city limits, or had small fields, and came to the marketplace to sell their things, and went back home in the afternoon” he explains.

During summer, Finnish markets are bursting with locally-grown fruits & vegetables

These days, Finnish markets are enjoying something of a renaissance, as consumers favour locally sourced products, and value organic foods. A shift in culture which almost takes us back in time.

“People are more and more aware of what they eat” says Harju. “This is the revival of local food, this kind of idea that you want to eat something that is not produced in Brazil or wherever, and you know it’s better if you know who is the producer, and you can be sure he’s not using [pesticides] or something” he adds.

Slow Food / Fine Dining

This throwback to an earlier, more simple time for food production has found favour also in fine dining.

Renowned Finnish restauranteur Henri Alén recently opened Finnjävel in an 1830s building in Helsinki city centre. The menu is full of comforting dishes and vintage ingredients that may have fallen out of mainstream favour in Finnish kitchens — but all presented with fine dining flair.

“Our philosophy is to give a piece of Finnish soul to diners in the form of food, crafts and service, to show what Finland can stand for in 2016” says Alén.

On the menu — which changes with the seasons and availability of ingredients — diners might find wild mushroom porridge, or salted and pickled salmon with whey sauce. There might be Karelian pastries, Finnish blood sausage, root vegetables, herring with onions, or bilberry pie.

Autumn apples, squash & beans: late summer bilberries all grown in Finland

It’s an unabashed celebration of Finland’s rich, natural food culture.

“I feel that we have always been too shy about our food heritage, and trying to copy trends of the world” says Alén. “In that way, we forget to see what’s close, what’s in the backyard. And there’s a lot!” he exclaims.

“Even people my age are quite unknowing of the heritage and history of our culinary stuff. We can’t just forget how we have survived in this harsh climate. We need to be proud of that”.

Heritage Foods

Of course over the years consumer tastes change, or farmers find favour with one crop over another. And that can mean that varieties of plants, or even whole dishes or breeds of livestock can slip from common use and be forgotten.

The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity is trying to do something about that, with their “Ark of Taste”.

Since 1996, the Foundation has catalogued thousands of forgotten and endangered quality food products from more than 100 countries.

Their work continues also in Finland, where some unusual — and surprising — items are on the list.

Rönttönen pastries from Kainuu in north east Finland are a round, rye pastry filled with mashed potato, rye flour and lingonberries. In the past, when sugar was scarce, the rönttönen was a sweet substitute. Nowadays, there is only one commercial producer of the pastry, and it’s in danger of being forgotten altogether.

Also on the list is a traditional strong cloudy beer called sahti which dates back to the 1700s, and is considered to be one of the last ‘original’ beers of Europe. Made with rye or barley, wheat or oats and hops, the sweet, cloudy beer is only produced commercially by four companies although it is still popular in rural communities and many people brew their own at home.

The “Ark of Taste” is helping to preserve sahti — and other Finnish foods — for future generations.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.