Bre Graham discovers the flavours behind a traditional Finnish midsummer in Lapland
In the summer months, once the snow has melted, you can see the grey shadows of reindeers flitting through the dense forests along the highways in Lapland, Finland. At this time of year, it’s one of the only reminders that the main connotation of Lapland is Christmas. When everything is this lush, heavy with greenery and under blue skies, it’s hard to remember that this land spends most of the year covered beneath snow.
“What do you do in the winter?” I asked Reijo Lantto, who runs the lakeside cabins in Himmerki, Posio. He laughs and says smirking “in the summer we swim and make love.” And in the winter? “We just make love.”
He tells me stories of the long winters and life on the Lake Kitkajärvi, where in the summer families kayak, swim and fish until late in the evening, when the sky changes colour. In the winter it is frozen solid, so people swim and fish in holes cut in the ice, and sled. Looking out on the lake at almost midnight in the middle of summer, the sun hovers on the horizon and dapples the sky and water pools of pink and orange. It stays like this until it starts to rise again. It will not fully set for six weeks.
“We don’t put blackout blinds on the windows. Sure tourists complain but we just tell them to sleep with their eyes shut,” says Reijo, as he shows me my own cabin. There is a sauna next to the bedroom with a small window that looks out onto the forest full of reindeers.
In summer, the schedule of life shifts and Finns eat dinner later in the evening. At almost 10pm, we dine on carrot and cream soup, with thickly buttered dark rye bread before white fish, caught in the lake outside, is served poached in butter and dill and covered in a dark mushroom sauce.
“These mushrooms can kill you if you don’t know how to prepare them,” he says on my second spoonful. “They’ll give you strange dreams”. The huge False Morels are sourced by Reijo on the land around the lake. Sauteed with salt and cream, these mushrooms are seen as the holy grail for Finnish foragers. Bulbous and dark brown, they look entirely inedible and taste incredibly earthy.
In Finland foraging is the focus on everything eaten on summer tables. The law in Finland means that you can pick mushrooms, berries or herbs from anywhere you find it, and in the summer months they are the highlight of every meal. As a mostly nomadic society for many years, hunting, fishing and foraging are intrinsic to the lifestyle in Lapland, and elk, moose and reindeer frequently appear on the Finns’ plates alongside the berries and herbs.
For a few weeks in the middle of summer, it’s cloudberry season and the swamps where they grow practically glow with the golden fruit. The small amber coloured berries smell like musk and taste like a tart mango. They are difficult to commercially cultivate and so are lovingly harvested by locals looking to preserve them for a taste of summer during the winter. Formed from small white flowers that bloom once the snow melts in spring, one tiny berry contains more vitamin C than an orange as they hold in all the summer sunlight. Everywhere you go you can find jars of cloudberry jam, cordial or liqueur.
At Korpihilla, Ritva Kokko creates almost all of her products with these berries. She serves us a fizzing cloudberry wine alongside jellied sweets shaped like the berries, alongside the buds of new spruce tree needles which we later pick from the huge trees in the grounds of her home. She sells tins of reindeer and moose meat, recommends we try blue cheese with the cloudberries, and serves us potato pancakes topped with salmon, cheese and dill. From the front of her house, a ginger house cat, named Tosca after the traditional Nordic almond cake, watches a herd of reindeers graze in the distance.
The flavours of a Finnish midsummer celebration are focused on what you can find on the land. Small new potatoes, fresh and fragrant dill, bilberries, cloudberries, fermented cheese and fish. People from the south of Finland flock to the north for summer escapes from the city and long for a cabin by a lake with a sauna.
Immersing myself fully into the Finnish experience, on my last night in Lapland I drink Lappish Gold beer, Lapin Kulta, inside the sauna before a late dinner of mushroom pancakes, roasted white fish and birch-infused ice cream. While we can find the flavours of Scandinavia anywhere from Ikea to every Nordic inspired bakery, I bought home with me the flavours I found in Finland. Reindeer jerky, jars of cloudberry jam, Napue Gin (a 100% whole-grain rye-based gin), and a pocket full of spruce needles to suck on the flight home.