Many fine seafood dishes in Finnish cuisine

Finland is such a beautiful, hospitable country it deserves to be discovered by travelers looking for places not overrun and overpriced. Visitors to far northern Finland will find astonishments and delights not least of which is the cuisine. Finnish food is excellent, probably because the Finns themselves enjoy gracious living and dining.

In every city, town, and hamlet one discovers gastronomic surprises served with smiling efficiency, from the small, intimate bistro and country inn to the more lavish, beautifully appointed rooms for dining in the hotels in larger cities like Helsinki, the capital, and Turku, the former capital.

One soon learns, too, that the Finns have many fine dishes indigenous to their country.

This Scandinavian nation has its northern area -- Finnish Lapland -- above the Arctic Circle, and its southern and western boundaries are the Gulf of Finland and the Baltic Sea. On the east, is the USSR.

Reindeer is eaten with relish by the Finns; fine beef is also part of their cuisine. Much of the native culinary art centers around fish, naturally.

Happy is the visitor who arrives about mid-July, in time for a real delicacy -- Finnish crayfish, served with fresh dill and, in my experience, the best in the world.

Thick soups are standard fare everywhere, and they are so rich and filling they often take the place of a meal.

Almost everyone in this agreeable country shares the American passion for sweets, and foreign visitors can depend upon finding a great variety of delicious homemade pastries everywhere from the colorful outdoor markets in virtually every city and town, to the menus of the most elegant hotels.

Matti Viherjuuri generously made available to me some of her extensive knowledge of Finland's cuisine. She is a member of the Societe des Gastronomes Finlandais and is honorary chairman of the Chevalier de la Chaine de Rotissuers.

She spoke of seasonal dishes and delicacies; and delicious fish for export which will be a special treat for winter visitors. These are turbot, whitefish, and tiny sardinelike vendace, all of which spawn only in winter.

Their roe is eaten with onion, pepper, sour cream, toast. Pike, bream, salmon -- usually pulled out of Arctic riversin Lapland -- and salmon's relative , the whitefish, are some other delicious always-available fish.

Ways of preparing them outdoors in summer are many; they are smoked, grilled, or cooked on a board. My Finnish friends told me planked whitefish should definitely be tried.

Even a trout caught in a fish tank is great, grilled by a fire. The fish is placed close to the fire but not too close, just enough to see that it is done quickly and keeps the juices inside.

Finland has hundreds of lakes, and summer visitors should plan to take a lake excursion in eastern Finland to taste freshly caught fish cooked on the lakeshore.

The old Finns knew nothing about nutrition but they appreciated the good qualities of fresh fish. They ate the entire fish -- bones, head, fins and all.

Another old Finnish tradition is raw fish. Finland, like Japan, is a country whose people consume a great deal of raw fish, pickled in various ways or salted. This is something special a visitor will find everywhere.

Matti Viherjuuri spoke enthusiastically also of the new potatoes which Finns get in June. They are "the size of a bird's egg and are cookedin their skins, in water seasoned with dill, and eaten with lightly salted butter and herring."

Speaking of herring, "silakka," the Baltic herring which can be prepared at least a hundred different ways, is perhaps the most popular of the fish available year round.

Summer is the time the Finns really come alive to the fullest extent of their extraordinary vitality, for summer is so short it is precious, a time of the year when the sun shines all day and doesn't set until close to midnight, and light appears again in just a few hours.

Along with the tiny new potatoes, June brings strawberries. Later come blueberries from the forests and black and red currants, cloudberries -- a Finnish delight -- raspberries, lingonberries, even cranberries.

Typically Finnish, too, is the summer's first vegetable, "apposet" or pea pods, which are cooked whole, dipped in butter and pulled through the teeth like an artichoke leaf.

This is the season, too, for early mushrooms, as common in Finland as oranges in Florida and California. From childhood, Finns are instructed by their elders how to distinguish the edible from the poisonous, since there are 500 varieties, about 200 of which are the most desirable and meant to be eaten with pleasure.

Chanterelles come first; and in autumn the hunt is on in earnest, for whole families go mushroom hunting. After returning from a day in the forest, stooping, searching, picking, the adults sort out the mushrooms according to type, and clean them, instructing the children meanwhile.

The old-timers, the real mushroom fans, usually rush right into the kitchen to heat up the frying pan.

Mushrooms can be preserved and frozen, put in sauces, soups, salads, or creamed. They have form and taste and personality and that exotic foresty fragrance, well worth the hunt.

Most Americans know and enjoy Finnish bread called Finn brod but are not aware that the catalog of cheese, but the Finnish choice of cheeses is limited.

Visitors to Helsinki will find a full range of them, as well as numerous other delicacies, indigenous products and imports, in the excellent and extensive food department of Stockman's Department Store, one of the most interesting places to visit on every tourist itinerary.

When autumn suddenly turns to winter and the lakes freeze over, the Finns begin to think about their most serious eating time -- Christmas.

Finns admit shamefacedly that they gorge themselves at the Christmas meal, which is a traditional feature in every household as, indeed, it is in ours.

The Christmas meal starts with cold cuts, herring in different sauces, and with different decorations, slightly salted salmon, and, in some families, the traditional pastry and bouillon follow, after which the main dish, ham, appears.

Side dishes include peas and prunes and a rutabaga casserole, often a potato casserole, too, and frequently a liver casserole and even one of carrots. Dessert may be fruit salad, rice porridge, or prune pudding.

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