Smokey and Malty, the Flavors of Finland


Sally Schneider

To try Sally's recipe for traditional Finnish porridge made with whole grains, click here.

Since returning from Finland, I have found myself hungering for foods I never imagined hungering for, never imagined needing, like lightly smoked Baltic herring with a flute of faintly perfumed vodka-like schnapps, or Finnish rye bread and butter, or long-cooked barley porridge. Simple, elemental foods made almost always without fuss. When I think back to my time there, I realize these were "peak experience" foods: the best version I've ever had. It has much to do with the freshness and clarity of flavor of Finland's raw materials and the quality of "local"—a palpable connection to forest, river, and sea.

Although Finnish cuisine shares some of the simple farm cooking roots of France and America, it is laced with a completely other palate of flavors: smoky, bitter, malty—a different kind of deliciousness that can become addictive. Salty and sweet are often conjoined, especially in the wealth of cured and/or smoked fish from rivers, lakes, and sea that are served as appetizers, for lunch, even for breakfast, accompanied by buttered rye bread. (The tradition of curing and smoking arose out of the impossibility of catching fresh fish during the many months when waterways were frozen.) Sweet sauces made with lingonberries, rowanberries, or other wild berries and herbal flavors like mountain ash or juniper often accompany savory meats, especially pates and game. Clear schnapps and malty beers traditionally accompany a meal, though imported wines are increasingly consumed. Desserts make use of the country's wealth of berries and apples, especially in comforting, old-fashioned pies topped with meringue.

Licorice, with its subtle perfumes and flavor that is at once sweet and bitter, finds its way into both sweet and savory foods, and especially ice creams and other creamy desserts. I was sure the licorice crème brulee served at Atleje Finne in Helsinki was a bad idea until I tasted the subtlest of licorice undertones—a perfume, really—married with caramel and cream into a compelling dessert. Licorice is also the country's favorite candy, packaged in charmingly-designed boxes, and available in sweet, as well as oddly-delicious salted varieties called Salmiaki.

Rye, milder and more sweetly aromatic than any I've tasted elsewhere, is the country's favored grain; the flavor is pervasive. There are endless variations on the theme of rye bread, and each restaurant prides itself on its unique version—with its own particular grind and kind of rye and natural starter. It might be malty or molasses-y, chewy or cakelike. Rye finds its way into pastry crusts paired with blueberries, as in a tart called a Rooster that can be utterly, surprisingly mild and delicate. It is also made into superb porridges, as is barley, in modern interpretations of what some say was the ancient precursor to bread.

The porridge I had at the breakfast of local Finnish foods served at the Klaus K Hotel was like a lesson in grain: each kernel was distinct, tender, lightly coated with thickened milk, and utterly satisfying. This porridge was addictive and sustaining, with undertones of butter. It had been cooked for hours in a heavy pot in a slow oven, echoing Finland's agrarian past, when grains were cooked over wood coals in the hearth, to be served as a side dish, breakfast, or dessert. In Finland, porridges are traditionally served with a spoonful of fruit preserves or local honey, but I was happy to eat it plain, morning after morning. It was so good just the way it was.