View Full Version : What did our Finnish forefathers have for supper?

Gunnar Damström
12-04-11, 00:44
This essay was inspired by a recent discussion about food on the Finlander discussion forum. I was asked what our forefathers menus might have looked like. First I was reluctant, however on second thought I realized that I am fortunate to have an abundance of information in my personal library- books on all aspects of food that I inherited from my parents.

What were our forefathers treated to for breakfast, dinner and supper? The fares varied from period to period.

Since prehistoric time livestock was kept (pigs, horses, cows, and sheep), however fresh meat was a rare delicacy. Keeping livestock was problematic. Gathering winter fodder was time consuming. You had to build barns to store the fodder and keep the animals warm in the winter. You kept what livestock you needed to provide milk, hides, wool (and manure for cultivation). In the early 1500’s a homestead in the Åbo archipelago typically kept one horse, three cows and four sheep. In 1635 the corresponding numbers were one horse, five cows and 15 sheep2.

You slaughtered in the late fall to minimize the need for winter fodder and shelter. Winter cold helped keep the meat fresh longer. Slaughter time was a big feast. Nothing was wasted. Blood and entrails that spoiled fast were first consumed. Smoking was the prevalent form of conservation until salt became more readily available, which probably happened sometimes in the 1600’s. Probably our forefathers in prehistoric and medieval times did not consume any salt at all.

Chicken were introduced in Finland during the Iron Age, 500-1300 a.d., however only big estates kept chicken. It was only in the 1800’s that smaller farms started keeping chicken4

Seal (säl, själ, stut, ståt) has important foodstuff in Finland since the end of the ice age. Seal was hunted on the ice. The hunters lay in pursuit by the breathing holes with their spears and harpoons. Seal blubber had many uses: to waterproof footgear, provide lamp oil, frying oil etc. The meat was considered a delicacy. The hide was used to make footgear and coats.

Game meat was important to our hunter gatherer forefathers. Hare, moose (elk), lynx, grouse, squirrel was abundant in the large pristine forests. Squirrel provided both a excellent fur and meat. Squirrel skin was used as a monetary unit in prehistoric and medieval times. The Finnish word for money, raha, originally meant squirrel skin. A cow cost about 100 squirrel skins. There is a record from the 1300’s about a trader shipping 400,000 skins to Reval (Tallinn) about half of which were squirrel skins4. For squirrel hunting crossbows were used. One used flat head darts not to damage the fur.

Fish was a common fare. In the winter ice fishing was popular. Gillnets and bone hooks were used in prehistoric times. The oldest gillnets the archeologists have found in Finland are 9000 years old. Metal hooks were introduced during the Viking era. Typical fish caught included pike (gädda), perch (abborre), white fish (sik), bream (braxen), herring (strömming), sprat (vassbuk), salmon (lax), trout (forell), eel (ål), flounder (flundra), vendace (mujka).

Fish was smoked or fermented (gravlax) for preservation. When salt became available one salted down fish in large wooden barrels3. When Catholicism reached Finland in the 1200’s it is likely that dried cod halves were first imported from Ruija (Norway). This was an excellent staple food and “lutfisk” was probably a much more common fare on the dinner table in medieval times than nowadays.

Turnips (rova, kålrot, rutabaga in the US) has been cultivated since prehistoric times and was the chief source of vitamin C until potato was introduce in the late 1700’s. It has been suggested that turnips originates from Scandinavia. A wild form turnips grows on the island of Gotland3. Parsnip (palsternacka) originates from southern Europe and was probably introduced in Finland by Catholic monks in the 1200’s. These roots were grown and stored in earth cellars for winter use3.

Grain has been cultivated since prehistoric times. Agriculture became more common after 500 a.d and during the Viking era. One grew oats, barley, rye, wheat, beans, hemp, and flax. Rye was the most common grain grown in the Åbo archipelago2. Scorch farming was a common agricultural practice. A typical breakfast probably included hot cereal made from barley or oats.

Catholic monks introduced the herb gardens in the 1200's. Thyme, marjoram, parsley, dill, chervil and sage were commonly cultivated. Pedersöre pastor Gabriel Aspegren has been credited with introducing potato to Finland in the mid 1700’s. He established a large vegetable garden “Rosenlund” in Jakobstad.


Kajsa Warg: Hjälpreda i Hushållningen för Unga Fruntimber, second edition, Lor. Ludv. Grefing, Stockholm 1759

2) Finska Skären: Studier i åboländsk kulturhistoria, Konstsamfundet, Helsingfors 1990 ISBN 951-95948-0-9

3) Matlexikon A-Ö, Medens Förlags AB, Stockholm, 1967

4) Wikipedia

D J Granlund
12-04-11, 16:01

Thank you so much for the food tour of the time! I found it very interesting and informative. David

13-04-11, 00:00
Thank you for the food history lesson, Gunnar.

"Turnips (rova, kålrot, rutabaga in the US)..."
In New Zealand, I saw rutabaga labeled in the food market as "Swedes". :-)
"Fish was smoked or fermented (gravlax) for preservation."
The recipe I have used for making gravlax calls for both salt and sugar. Is there an earlier method?

June Pelo
13-04-11, 00:30
Rutabaga was known as Swedes among the Swede-Finns. We cooked them, mashed them and added to mashed white potatoes - so there were flecks of yellow in the white mashed potatoes..

Gunnar Damström
14-04-11, 08:05
Yes-there is an earlier method (you may not like it very much). (Grav=grave) You dig a pit in the ground, (maybe) cover the bottom with leaves, dump your salmon (Lax) in, (maybe) cover with leaves, finally cover with dirt. After some time you dig up the fish and eat. I never tried this gravlax recipe. Maybe it's delicious. Fermented herring, sursill is considered a delicacy in northern Sweden. That I have tried and I did not like it very much