Jul 272016
 

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Today is National Sleepy Head Day (Finnish: Unikeonpäivä) in Finland. This holiday does very little to disprove my general hypothesis that Finns are loony. I have no doubt that some are sane, but I’ve not met them yet. My mind immediately takes me back to a night I spent with two Finnish professional oboe players in Edinburgh that involved a lot of ice-cold vodka. However, I will cop to the possibility that I am not entirely sane myself and that I have a habit of attracting loonies.

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National Sleepy Head is apparently related to the legend of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, which I covered here http://www.bookofdaystales.com/seven-sleepers-day/ but I am not sure exactly how. Seven Sleepers Day is 27 June, so the day is correct, but not the month. There’s the usual rubbish talked about the festivity of course, with no primary evidence to back it up. General folklore is that it dates to Medieval times, but the first documented example comes from the 18th century, and the contemporary practice is certainly modern. The general folklore is that a person who sleeps late on this date will be lazy and non-productive for the rest of the year. I like it; it’s a novel twist on weather prognostication. It’s also suitably Finnish and Finns should be proud.

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The general idea is that the last person in the house asleep is to be woken up using water. This can be by dumping water over them in bed, or by tossing them into a lake or the sea. In the city of Naantali, a Finnish celebrity is chosen every year to be thrown in the sea from the city’s port at 7 a.m. The identity of the sleeper is kept secret until the event. People who are chosen have usually done something to the benefit of the city. Every city mayor has thus far been thrown into the sea at least once, but other sleepers have included the president Tarja Halonen’s husband, Dr Pentti Arajärvi, the CEO of Neste Oil Risto Rinne, along with many writers, artists and politicians. The celebrations continue into the evening in Naantali and include activities for everyone.

Finnish cuisine, such as it is, is nothing to write home about. Like all Scandinavian cuisines it is plain and bland. In former times, the country’s harsh climate meant that fresh fruit and vegetables were largely unavailable for nine months of the year, leading to a heavy reliance on staple tubers (initially turnip, later potato), dark rye bread and fermented dairy products, occasionally enlivened with preserved fish and meat. Traditionally, very few spices other than salt were available, and fresh herbs like dill were limited to the summer months. Many Finnish traditional dishes are prepared by stewing them for a long time in an oven, which produces hearty but bland fare. Nowadays an emphasis on absolute freshness dominates over variety.

Because of the country’s location and historical influences, Finnish cuisine is very similar to Swedish cuisine with German and Russian overtones. Swedish dishes like Janssons frestelse (janssoninkiusaus), pyttipannu, and gravlax are common in Finland. The overarching difference is the Finns’ preference for unsweetened foods. For example, while traditional Swedish rye bread includes plenty of syrup and spices, Finnish rye bread is unsweetened, even bitter. Sausages and buttered bread (like Butterbrot), and kiisseli (kissel) and karjalanpiirakka (pirozhki) are similar to their respective German and Russian counterparts.

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I will say that Finland has a strong tradition of using berries in cooking, especially arctic berries, which are delicious. Traditionally, wild arctic berries were eaten fresh in summer and dried at other times of year. It is still quite common to go picking berries straight from the forests. Wild raspberries, bilberries and lingonberries (cowberries) are found in almost every part of Finland, while cloudberries, cranberries, arctic brambles and sea buckthorns grow in more limited areas. The intensely flavored wild strawberry (metsämansikka) is a seasonal delicacy used for decorating cakes, served alone, or with cheese, cream or ice cream.

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I think fish is the order of the day for a celebration involving throwing people into the sea. Fried vendace (Coregonus albula) is a summer-time delicacy in Finland. The fish are fried whole and served with potatoes and garlic sauce. Vendace is a lake whitefish in the salmon family that you will find in northern Europe, although it is not as plentiful as it used to be. It’s a small fish, so even if you have mature fish you’ll need 2 or 3 per person. I’ve only ever had it as whitebait (tiny fish, deep fried).

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Usual rules for frying whole fish apply. Dry the fish well and coat them lightly in flour. Fry the fish in batches in hot oil, turning once. Make sure that the skin is crisp and golden.