As soon as my friend and I landed in Helsinki we headed for a café where I fumbled around with the SIM card slot on my phone, popping in a replacement that works on the networks here. Since the beginning of the month I’ve been posting largely decontextualized snippets of our journey – not all immediately pertinent to agriculture or seeds, although that certainly has been the subtext of nearly every move we’ve made here.
In a global context, Finnish food apparently has a less-than-stellar reputation, but I’ve never sought a cosmopolitan experience from my travels anyway. The conception of nationality –which scholar Benedict Anderson reminds us is “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (Imagined Nations, p. 3) – may figure in prominently for the food critics, but I value more modest modes of relationship with region, place and locality without undue hierarchies of taste.
A mere few hours after arriving I spotted apples on the trees in the Helsinki botanical garden. My traveling companion reached (okay, climbed; this was no doubt bending the rules a bit) toward up the upper branches of the trees as I unstuffed my spare purple chico bag and promptly filled it to the brim with deeply blushed red fruits that I later found out could have matured even longer as these were winter apples.
Much like the food we grow on the farm, our relationship to a place necessitates a move beyond the generic – the apple or apples – and into an engagement with the irreducibly idiosyncratic, quirky, and specific – this apple and only this apple. I’ve never sought out the Finnish experience during my travels, but rather, fragments from a culture that – at least in its urban centers – has been Westernized as much as any other industrialized nation.
Whenever I head to a supermarket or convenience store in the states, I buy a lighter at checkout – my purchases always punctuated with something elemental, however mediated or commoditized. Here in Finland, my fire is replaced with flavor. I compulsively buy boxes of salmiakki – Finnish salted licorice candy – grabbing at random from the astonishing array of varieties, withdrawing four or five of the small-button shaped candies from the box, mawing them down and, soaking in the distinctive, yet divisive flavor. I’ve handed many of these candies to friends back in the states. It’s a love hate relationship all around. Few partake, even my traveling companion who generally has a broader flavor palette than I, especially when it comes to food.
Over in my friend’s garden on the shore of Piispala neighborhood of Tampere the soil is a rich, deep black. Her plot stands out amongst others that have already succumbed to the encroaching autumn weeds and is filled with kale, swedes, kohlrabi, carrots and fava beans. From some far off plot I grab the seed heads from some unique shades of calendula, possibly for the beginning of a flower-breeding project back home. Back at her apartment across town, her window is adorned with an indoor “Aji purple” pepper plant; her outside porch with struggling cucumbers and kales; and her cabinets filled with wildcrafted herbs – nettle, mint, chamomile, and a new discovery – Sweet Cecily (Myrrhis odorata) – that I plan to establish on our farm upon my return.
During our time in Tampere (the second largest city in Finland, which is situated between two large lakes) we cook root roasts of potatoes, beets, and swedes and eat cabbage boxes (Kaalilaatikko) – a baked loaf traditionally composed of mincemeat, rice, onions and cabbage. Unless you want to spend exorbitant sums at fancy restaurants, I’ve found the only place to find “traditional” Finnish food is in the home of my friends, with some smatterings available in the market halls (kaupahalli) of major cities, such as Hakaniemi in Helsinki.
Turning to alcohol, the most diverse selection is necessarily found in the state-run “Alko” shops. There we picked up an assortment of liqueurs and hard liquor for a weekend of mushroom wildcrafting in Seitseminen national park. One unique flavor that stood out was the “Yrrtisnapsi” – much like the salmiakki licorice, with other herbs and heavy sugar. But yrrtis aside, the mushrooms have been an early highlight of this trip. We’ve picked and dried enough to last a few seasons (given they pass customs inspection). Although the berry season was largely in its ebb, lingonberries and water-logged blueberries were still around on many plants. (Had I paid a visit to the swampy low-lands there would have been cranberries aplenty.)
We spent our final day in Seitseminen visiting the “multiharju” portion of the park – a swath of protected primary forest carpeted with thick soil, mosses, and shrubs. Having spent the past six months focusing on the ecological functions of cover-cropping plays on our farm, seeing this dense, variegated forest floor struck me as “nature’s original cover crop.” Outside the boundaries of the park, we were immediately faced with the harsh reality of clear cuts. We then drove toward the Hämeenkyrö region, which is filled with agricultural land – all probably once forest – and I learned that Finland produces nearly all its own grain (this was told to me anecdotally, so forgive my lack of numbers). We visited the Frantsilan Kehäkukka café, which is the public face of a natural cosmetics company that began in the 1980s. The farm where the herbs are grown has a tradition dating back three hundred years. I skipped the food – due to a fledgling cold – and instead picked up a tall jar of sugar-cranberry juice concentrate, downing it all for its vitamin C content. Then I went browsing the shop and purchased a kilo each of whole Finnish rye and wheat to bring back with me to the states.
Anyone who has maligned Finish cuisines obviously has no taste for the array of breads that exist. Rye bread (ruisleppa) is at the center of it all, and seems to be nearly everyone’s staple food here. My Spartan nature has me grabbing at rounds with my hands that should obviously be sliced, stuffing the dry, slices into my mouth without any of the accoutrements that most would consider a pre-requisite for eating bread.
In Helsinki, I mostly perused the very posh design and art scenes – this is the world design capital for 2012, after all – but also managed to get to the Töölö neighborhood to visit the office of a small seed organization called Maatiainen, a non-profit that is dedicated to offering heritage varieties of Finnish crops such as rye, broad bean, and rutabaga. I also picked up a few bulbs of Alexandra garlic, which is hands down the largest, most uniform hard-neck variety I’ve ever seen. Hard-necks tend to require more cold to grow appropriately, but the woman running Maatiainen suggested that maybe we could force vernalization of the bulbs (by placing them in the freezer).
Next up, Stockholm, Amsterdam, and then back home for Halloween.
See you all soon!
–Quin (Pispala, Tampere, Finland, October 20, 2012)