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Lapland: a taste of original purity

Lapland: a taste of original purity

Eric Boucher - 2011-02-14

Reindeer, elk, bear, cloudberry, cranberry, salmon, trout, whitefish ... Discover gastronomy from the wilderness close to the Arctic Circle!

The British superstar chef, Jamie Oliver, recently declared: “I can definitely say – hand on heart – that Sweden is one of the coolest countries in the world. It’s clean, fun, and organised […] But for me, the ultimate selling point is the food. In many ways, Swedish food is perfect for this time of year because it’s all about using the freshest ingredients: lovely fish and crayfish from the cold, clean Scandinavian waters; exciting cured meats and fish; generous hit of spices and lots and lots of fresh herbs – especially dill.”
 
All this is true and especially so in Northern Sweden – in Lapland, home to the Sami people. Indeed this wild, immense and depopulated territory possesses a kind of original purity that’s difficult to find these days in our post-industrial societies.
 
This Artic gastronomy presents Swedish tourism with the particular advantage of its relatively small scale, as it’s based on wild produce, gathered in small quantities and rarely exported outside of Scandinavia. Indeed, Peter Juntti, the director of Polarica, a firm specialised in selling produce from the Polar Regions, advised us: “the quantity of wild meat, especially reindeer, is very limited. So the best way to sample a reindeer fillet is to come to Sweden, particularly to the north.”
 
The land of the Sami, Reindeer... and Bears
 
This people are frequently known as the “Lapps” but they themselves assert their real name to be the Sami, a name which comes from their own language of Finn-Ugric origins. For several thousands of years they have inhabited this huge northern territory covering Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. Of their population of 80,000 people, 20,000 live in Sweden. This ancient Proto-European people has managed to negotiate the transition to modernity and now uses helicopters and snowmobiles to guard their herds of reindeer. However very few of them still maintain a nomadic lifestyle.
 
The rearing of reindeer requires the animals to be left in semi-liberty and vast open spaces. They feed mainly on lichens, wild grasses, bark and mushrooms. This is what gives the meat its subtle aromas. Although I wouldn’t go to great lengths for a Souvas, the Sami traditional dish of fine slices of smoked reindeer cooked in butter in a huge frying pan over a joyful birch fire, the fresh meat is nevertheless excellent in stews, or, better still, as a roast filet, served with cranberry sauce.
 
To an even greater extent than the reindeer the elk is the noble animal of these lands. Its meat is reputed to be even better than venison. Once again we would recommend a simple roasted filet, which is sublime! Eighty to a hundred thousand elks are killed each year in Sweden, which is neither enough for export nor to significantly reduce the elk population, which much to the timber industry’s displeasure proliferates in the Lapland forests. Elks especially adore the young shoots and the bark at the tops of pine trees and they can stand on their hind legs and graze branches at a height of up to 3 metres! The Swedes have to strike a delicate balance between the logging industry, which encourages elk hunters, and those who shoot lynx (according to a highly regulated hunting quota), which are increasing in number and threatening the various deer species.
 
At the risk of enticing hunters of all kinds, Swedish Lapland is a paradise for hunters with its grouse, capercaillie and bears etc. They have even recently reauthorized the hunting of wolves, which prey on herds of reindeer. Coming back now to the bears, these are hunted for their skin, but also for their meat. Not without some guilt and feeling like a cannibal I ingested the flesh of a species that could almost be our cousin...  It can be consumed mixed with pölsa (a kind of Swedish porridge ) or as cured meat, but the taste in the palate is really a tad too strong! I wouldn’t want to encourage you to put a burden on your karma with this kind of tasting experience.
 
The Fruits of Paradise
 
Blueberries, cranberries and berries galore, Lapland is generous in its bitter tastes! It also gives you the chance to discover some unexpected flavours. Ripened in the cold rays of the feeble sun, the Artic blackberries and raspberries were the gustatory revelation of our trip to Lapland. The hjortron in Swedish, a kind of small golden coloured blackberry, is extolled for its virtues by the natives under its English name cloudberry (or Arctic blackberry). Whilst it’s abundant in Scandinavia, Finland, and Quebec, it is virtually unknown outside of these geographical areas due to the impossibility of its cultivation. Despite resembling the blackberry, its taste is completely different and frankly indescribable. It has a strange taste as if it was from another planet and it has a certain degree of bitterness. When made into jam it is absolutely delicious served with ice cream or fromage blanc.
 
At first glance, the Arctic raspberry isn’t much to look at and most continental greengrocers would probably refuse them on their stalls... Well they’d be wrong! Small, frail, pale and vaguely pink their taste is one of incredible finesse with an aroma so subtle and pure (compared to our mass-produced raspberries) that you can taste the origins of a paradise lost in them.
 
The Miraculous Whitefish
 
As we walked along the Tornio, the raging river that marks the border with Finland, I expected to be told about salmon, brown trout, and about Arctic grayling, perch, pike… Not at all! Every mouth uttered just one name with an almost salivating veneration: the whitefish. As a Frenchman I had difficulty imagining which animal was hiding behind this word, and even more under its Swedish equivalent of "sik." That was until we arrived at the Kukkola  rapids. Here you come across a charming fishing hamlet with numerous buildings dating back to the 19th century: windmills, barns, and even a hut where they roast their famous whitefish on a fierce fire. The atmosphere of a sauna pervades the hut, and eating the delicate white flesh with your hands, taking care not to burn your fingers, is great fun.
 
Mathias Spolander, born into a family of generations of fishermen, catches whitefish in the traditional way, with nets, whilst standing on unlikely looking pontoons that jut over the rapids ... it sounds simple, but this requires skill and dexterity!
 
You can camp on site or stay in basic bungalows overlooking the river, which is a totally magical experience. The Spolander family also own a restaurant and a sauna where you follow up the heat with a dive into the icy waters of Tornio... at least in theory!
 
The löjrom
 
In By the open sea, a novel by August Stringberg, Inspector Borg, the novel’s hero is delegated by the government to raise awareness amongst fisherman of the increasing rarity of the strœmming, a small Baltic herring which was the staple diet of the local population. Borg’s ended up committing suicide because of the harshness of the fishermen, nevertheless it seems that nowadays the strœmming and the fishing stocks along the Swedish coast have been preserved. This is particularly true in the north, in the Gulf of Bothnia, in the small town of Kalix and the Haparanda archipelago where the pure waters of the powerful Lapland rivers empty into the sea. Here there is very rich salty water with an abundance of fauna, which includes the bleak, a kind of tiny herring from which its orange eggs, the löjrom, are extracted.
 
They have a taste which is similar to salmon’s eggs, yet sweeter and more subtle and are finer and less gelatinous. The eggs are extracted by hand and 30kg of fish are needed to collect just 4kg of löjrom. This is a choice dish that is served at Nobel prizes ceremonies. It can be served in a canapé with a little crème fraîche and red onions.
 
 
USEFUL INFORMATION
 
Visit Sweden
 
Swedish Lapland
 
Sörbyn Turism & Konferens
Sörbyn 220
96197 Gunnarsbyn
Tel: 0046 (0)924-22036
 
Kukkolaforsen Turism & Konferens
Kukkolaforsen 184
95391 Haparanda
Tel: 0046 (0)922-31000
 
Kattilakoski Restaurang
Niskanpää
95792 Övertorneå
Tel: 0046 (0)927-51013
An ultra modern restaurant opposite the river Tornio where you can eat reindeer and whitefish.
 

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