Today is Autonomy Day in Åland (or the Åland Islands), a demilitarised, monolingually Swedish-speaking, self governing region of Finland consisting of an archipelago lying at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea between Finland and Sweden. The location of Åland makes it of major strategic importance for military operations in the Baltic, and therefore its sovereignty has changed hands several times since the eighteenth century. Prior to 1809 Åland was part of the territory of Sweden, but Sweden ceded the islands, along with Finland, to Russia after being decisively defeated during the Napoleonic Wars. Subsequently Åland became part of the Grand Duchy of Finland within the Russian Empire. In 1832 the Russians built the great fortress, Bomarsund, in Åland to protect its interests in the Baltic, but it was destroyed by the combined British and French fleets during the Crimean War. The peace treaty that ended the war declared that the islands should be demilitarized. However, the Russians built a submarine base there in 1914. After the October revolution of 1917, Finland declared independence from Russia, and Åland attempted to reunite with Sweden as part of the deal, given that almost all of the population spoke Swedish and thought of themselves as Swedish. However, Sweden was preoccupied with its own internal political problems, and so Åland remained in Finnish hands until 1920 when Finland granted the islands the right to self governance (confirmed a year later by the League of Nations).
Åland consists of about 6,700 skerries (small rocky outcrops) and islands, 80 of which are inhabited. Shipping has been an important component of the Åland economy for centuries, and, in fact, the last European port for commercial sailing vessels was located there. Islanders used sail power long after the rest of Europe had converted to steam for powering sea vessels. Fishing is also of great importance, and for centuries the export of fish, mostly to Sweden, was a main component of the economy (as well as exported timber from cleared agricultural lands). In recent years the government has begun investing in aquaculture, such as mussel farming. Sport fishing and sailing have also become important components of a growing tourist industry (and despite looks to the contrary, this post is not sponsored by the Åland tourist board – although I am open to offers).
The islands are rocky with thin, but rich, chalk/clay soils which allow a wide variety of farming activities. Farming has supported the islanders since the Neolithic (New Stone Age), starting roughly 4,000 years ago. For 3,000 years before that the inhabitants were foragers, living off fish, hunted small game, and gathered grains and berries. Rye was the principal cereal grown until the end of the nineteenth century because of its tolerance for cold weather. In the eighteenth century cold weather root crops such as potatoes and turnips were introduced. Nowadays there is an abundance of certain fruits, most especially apples and berries, and, more recently, pears. Naturally sheep thrive in the rockier lands unsuitable for agriculture, and flocks are left to roam and graze on many of the uninhabited islands. There are also large herds of dairy cattle supporting a well established butter and cheese industry for export. There is a strong move towards green farming, and now a significant percentage of electricity is produced on the islands through wind power — decreasing dependence on undersea cables from the mainland.
Weddings on the islands until the 1920’s were three day affairs of song, dance, food, and drink. Nowadays they are recreated (in miniature) for tourists. The one pictured here shows people in what is now considered national dress, although these were invented in the late nineteenth century – but shhhh!! – don’t tell anyone — ALL “traditional” costumes in Europe were invented in that time period (or later). The main festival on the islands is Midsummer (June 21) although these days maypoles and traditional dances have been replaced with rock bands.
Much of Åland cuisine has its roots in the cooking of Sweden and Finland, with influences from Russia and France. But there are two items that are considered classics of Åland: Ålandskt Svartbrod, a dense dark brown bread made of rye flour, malt, and molasses, and Åland pancakes. These pancakes are more of a pudding than what we usually think of as pancakes, made of a base of semolina (cream of wheat), and eggs which is baked, then topped with fresh fruit or fruit “cream” (more traditional), and sometimes whipped cream.
4 cups (9.5 dl) milk
1/3 cup (1.6 dl) semolina
1 teaspoon salt
½ (1.5 dl) cup sugar
7/8 cup (2 dl) flour
1 tablespoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 tablespoons (.5 dl) butter, melted
Åland prune cream (see below)
fresh whipped cream
Bring the milk with the salt to a slow boil and add the semolina in a steady stream whilst whisking until thoroughly combined.
Cook at a low heat for approximately 10 minutes while occasionally stirring.
Set aside to cool.
When cooled, pour the cream of wheat into a mixing bowl. Add the eggs, sugar, flour, cardamom, and vanilla, and stir to make a smooth batter.
Line a 9″ (23 cm) round baking dish with parchment or greaseproof paper. Brush the paper with melted butter.
Pour the batter into the baking dish and cook at 390°F (200°C) for 30 to 45 minutes until golden brown.
Serve warm in slices topped with prune cream and whipped cream.
Åland Prune Cream
15 pitted prunes cut in quarters
4 cups (9.5 dl) water
1 cup (2.3 dl) prune juice
1 cinnamon stick
½ cup (1.5 dl) sugar
2 tbsp (.3 dl) cornstarch dissolved in 3 tbsp (.5 dl) water
Soak the prunes for 1 hour in the water in a saucepan.
Add the prune juice and cinnamon stick and bring to a slow boil.
Add the sugar slowly whilst stirring to dissolve, then remove from the heat.
Give the water and cornstarch mixture a quick whisk and add it to the prune mixture.
Return the pot to the stove and bring to a gentle boil.
As soon as the mixture thickens remove from the heat.
Discard the cinnamon stick and let cool.
Yield: 3 cups