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Food traditions in Finland

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The country people usually slaughtered animals once a year, between the end of September and All Saints’ Day. It was considered a man’s job, using an axe and a knife. Guns weren’t used until the 1920s and 1930s. The entrails, fat and blood were kept and processed. The fat was cut into pieces, salted and packed in the animal’s stomach, then tightly bound and placed in an oven, where it melted to form a solid block. Then it could be chopped into small pieces, salted in a wooden tub or melted down and strained into a tub of cold water. The entrails were cleaned and boiled in salt wwater. They they were chopped and salted in a wooden tub. The blood was used immediately in various ways.

Usually the blood was mixed with salt, rye or barley flour and baked in the oven in a birchbark basket, a pan or tin. Later on blood pancakes were made in a pan on the stove. The same dough could also be used to make flat loaves with a hold in the middle, and were hung from a pole in the kitchen. As they dried they became rock hard and had to be soaked or boiled before they could be eaten. Blood dough was also used to make little buns or cakes that were boiled in water. The names for them are medieval Swedish words and they were usually eaten in the western parts of the country. (In my family we made blood bread which was baked, sliced and dried until it was used. Generally the slices were broken into pieces and cooked along with potatoes and diced salt pork. We called it kamstejk – that’s the closest I can come to spelling it. JP)

Entrails and blood were also used to make sausages. Black sausage consisted of blood, chopped meat, entrails and rye flour and was made only in western Finland. In southwest Finland sausage was made in a pig’s or cow’s gut using chopped meat, entrails and pearl-barley; then it was salted or smoked.

Salted fish was used throughout the country, accompanied by bread and potatoes. Along the coastal areas it was mostly Baltic herring. It was often grilled on a wooden skewer over a fire. Frying in a pan is a more recent method. Dried fish was often used in soups the same as fresh fish. It wasn’t until the 19th century that baked fish dishes became known.

Dried cod was a medieval innovation introduced during the long period of fasting leading up to Christmas. Previously it was eaten only at Christmas and festive occasions in southwest Finland. Now it has become a Christmas dish in other parts of the country.

The meat of all animals was used as food, except for horseflesh. Authorities tried to get people to eat horseflesh during the lean years of 1780s-1790s and during periods of famine in 1867-1868, but to no avail. During this century cheap sausage made of horsemeat began to appear, and during the 1950s came the advent of hamburgers. Roasted meat was eaten only on special occasions. The Karelians ate meat cut into cubes and baked in a pot in the oven – it was known as Karelian stew. A more recent dish was meatballs and they were a delicacy but now they are an everyday dish. Recent arrivals are pork and beef fried in a pan and pork gravy, which first caught on with loggers and timber floating games as cheap American fat came on sale in the 1880s.

The most primitive forms of food made from flour were cooked at work sites or while hunting and made from flour and water with salt as seasoning. This ‘bread’ was eaten as such or boiled, most often in fish stock. The meal mixture known all over eastern Europe, Finnish talkkuna, was a simple type of bread food made from corn cooked and dried in the sauna. In southwest Finland it consisted of barley, peas, oats mixed with sour milk and eaten cold. Talkuna is probably a medieval Slav innovation that came to Finland via Karelia. It is used quite often during the summer.

Also known throughout Finland is a malted ryemeal dish of southwest origin called mämmi, eaten during Lent. It is made of rye flour and barley malt mixed with water and baked in birchbark caskets in the oven. It is eaten with a spoon and probably was originally a type of stew.

The most important flour dish is rye porridge, but barley and oat porridge are also known. Porridge was also made from turnips, peas and potatoes, or from rye flour mixed wth potatoes. Among the ordinary people it was mainly an evening dish or a Saturday dish. Gruel was made from flour or grits mixed with water or milk, but it was not very common. In western Finland gruel was also made from beer or ale. In Karelia flour gruel was soured by adding sour bread.

The westerners used flour to make a simple food or drink by mixing rye or malt flour with hot water and then leaving it to stand and sour. It was then used in place of sour milk. A runny form of mämmi was made the same way on the Karelian Isthmus and south Savo. It was made from oat flour mixed with water. Once it had been left to sour, it was strained and boiled. Orthodox people ate it on fast days.

Throughout the country the everyday bread was sour rye bread baked in an oven. The bread was raised with yeast; it was soured and would keep. Before that, people ate thin pancake-like unsoured cakes made without yeast. In northern and western Finland the women usually baked only twice a year. The loaves would be stored for a long time on poles or in bread stands. Hard bread was eaten only during the busy times of summer. Soft, sour rye bread was usually baked 2-3 times a week in eastern Finland in round or long loaves.

Sour-sweet bread made of rye or rye and malt flour was known in the western parts of the country; later in northern Ostrobothnia and Savo. It was sweetened by mixing the flour with hot water. The dough was then formed into thick loaves that were basted with butter or syrup. This type of bread has been known snce the 17th century.

Wheat bread is a recent newcomer. As coffee spread in the 1870s-1880s, people began to use wheat at home when baking for special occasions. Dry wheat bread was eaten as rusks. Other baked goods such as bread known as Viipuri rings became famous in the 17th century.

Gingerbread was known since the end of the Middle Ages, as an imported item. From the late 19th century it was baked at home for special occasions and at Christmas. Waffles were made in the towns in 1870s and waffle irons become known in peasant homes through the iron works of Finland at the beginning of the 19th century. Waffle making was chiefly found only in the western regions.

Pasties and fish pies in a rye crust were once chiefly made in eastern Finland. It is assumed that pasties became known in Karelia as a cultural loan in the Middle Ages. The same can be said of fish pies. The pasties of Savo and Karelia were either open or had a lid. The crust was made of rye and was filled with mashed potato, berries, barley grits, rice, etc. Ladoga Karelia specialized in pasties with a thin crust filled with rice. Now known as Karelian pasties, they are available in all parts of the country.

Fish pie is a round or oval pie, with a lid, usually filled with fish and chunks of pork. The rye crust is rolled out, the filling placed in the middle, and the edges folded over. Other fillings could be meat, mushrooms, potato, turnip, swedes, cabbage, etc. It was easy to take along on journeys and while working in the fields. The western counterpart is fish-bread: salted herring between two layers of rye dough baked in the oven.

The most important vegetables were turnips, cabbages, swedes, potatoes, peas, and beans. Onions were used only as seasoning. The only natural plants eaten were forest berries and mushrooms. The spread of the potato from the 1730s-1740s brought a major change, but did not really gain momentum until the first half of the 19th century. As potato growing increased, yellow turnips and cabbages declined in popularity.

Turnips, swedes and potatoes were roasted, braised or boiled in a pot. The primitive way of cooking them was to bake them in a pit lined with stones. These cooked vegetables were eaten at different meals with salt, salt water or salted herring. Yellow turnips, potatoes, swedes and cabbage were cooked with meat, milk, onion and rye or barley flour to form a stew or soup.

Oven casseroles are a recent invention. In the western parts of the country they were used on festive occasions. The same applies to salad mixtures made from herring, beets, carrots and pickled cucumber.


The only forest berry from early times was the red lingonberry. It was picked and stored raw in water in large wooden barrels; then stored in outbuildings to freeze. The same method was used to preserve crushed Arctic cloudberries which were eaten to prevent scurvy. Other forest berries were eaten only in the summer. The only part of Finland where ordinary people ate wild mushrooms was in the southeast in Karelia, where they were salted and packed in barrels for the winter. It did not become customary for people to pick mushrooms until the 1920s.

At one time people used milk only as a material for cheese and butter. Only children drank fresh milk. Sour milk, mixed with water, was an everyday drink. Goat’s milk was used only for making cheese. A pail was used for milking and the milk was sieved through a wad of fir needles. It was then left in shallow wooden pans to sour. The cream that rose to surface was skimmed off to make butter. The milk to be processed for ‘filbunke’ was not skimmed. It was only made in places for certain feast days, such as Midsummer. Skimmed sour milk was usually drunk at meals in the summer.

Butter was made from cream by beating it with a spoon or whisk. At the beginning of the 19th century it was also churned from sour milk. In ancient times butter was seldom eaten in country homes; it was used as a form of tax and sold to the towns. After the famine of 1867-1868 butter was the most important export item and most was sold to St. Petersburg and Sweden; later to England.

The cheese-making traditions of eastern and western Finland differed from one another. Finnish cheeses were of two categories: sour-milk cheese made mostly in west and central Uusimaa; and milk cheese with rennet in [Åland] and Ostrobothnia. In Ostrobothnia flat cheese was made in the heath of a fire and stored in a frame to become dry and tough. In central Ostrobothnia and western parts of the country a sweet cheese was made for Midsummer and eaten with milk with a spoon. It did not keep well.

Cheese was a folk tradition only in the west and north; in the east only an oven-baked cheese was made. In the 1850s a new Finnish cheese culture became established with the help of cheese-makers from Switzerland.


Excerpts from “Finnish Folk Culture” by Ilmar Talve

[June Pelo]


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