I have come up with a few excuses for the lack of blog posts over the last few months, but now I have a good one – I am hobbling around on crutches after an arthroscopy on both knees; I am definitely not working the garden for a while. However, for those readers not of the Nordic persuasion, and maybe even for some that are, I thought it might be interesting to write a few articles and provide some recipes for Finnish Christmas food, starting in this post with an overview of the Finnish Christmas table and the dishes that will be covered in subsequent posts. We have the best of both worlds here – CT is Finnish, and the Finns celebrate on Christmas Eve, leaving us free to follow the Finnish feast with an English sort on Christmas day. The in-laws stay with us for some weeks around Christmas, and mother-in-law Riitta and I do our best to prepare the traditional dishes, along with some family favourites.
Christmas fare is quite similar across the Nordic countries, although there are, of course, some regional variations, as well as household favourites that might not be an entirely traditional part of the menu. The key dishes reflect strongly the produce of the season, with cured meats and fish accompanied by winter vegetables such as potatoes, beetroot, swede, and carrots, available from the root store. The meal is generally laid out as a buffet, at least for the first course. The main attractions of this first course are the various cured and smoked fish dishes, something at which the Finns excel.
The fish. Herrings are cured in vinegar in various preparations, typically with onions and spices, and one might have half a dozen different sorts to provide an interesting range of flavours. Some are dressed in sour cream or mustard sauces. Though similar, at least superficially, to the rollmop, these herrings are very much better, with succulent textures and wonderful flavours. Alongside the herrings we have various dishes of salmon and trout. The most important are the gravad lax – finely sliced salmon fillets, which have been cured with salt, sugar, white pepper, and copious quantities of fresh dill – and cold smoked salmon. Whilst one can often find gravad lax in supermarkets here, it is typically rather expensive, and Finns are generally quite familiar with curing and smoking, so more likely to produce their own. I am often disappointed with bland smoked salmon produced in this country, which, to my taste, does not compare favourably with the more robust Finnish produce, so prepare my own, smoking it using smouldering alder wood in a repurposed old refrigerator. When we can find a large fillet of loch trout, we often add some cold smoked trout to the menu. Though not an essential part of the spread, we also like to hot smoke a couple of small rainbow trout, and prepare some gravad sea bass. The latter we have found to produce very similar results to a fish known as siika – or sik in Swedish – which we do not have here. Father-in-law Ilpo is particularly fond of the gravad sik or sea bass.
The salads. Accompanying the cured and smoked fish are various salads. The most widespread is rosolli, a combination of chopped beetroot, potatoes, and carrots, flavoured with apple, onion, and gherkin, and often decorated with chopped boiled egg. In some regions the herrings are added to this salad, whilst we prefer to serve them separately. Along with the rosolli we always prepare two other salads, which are not specifically Christmas dishes but are consumed year round and readily available from supermarkets. One comprises shredded cooked beetroot, with a mayonnaise and sour cream based dressing flavoured with horseradish and white pepper; the other is a pasta salad known, rather unimaginatively as Italian salad, not that one could find anything like it in Italy, as far as I am aware. Italian salad is prepared with macaroni or some other small pasta shape, smoked ham, peas, and various other ingredients, and, in our version, a mustard, mayonnaise, and sour cream based dressing. Riitta prepares the most delicious fresh dill cucumbers, which we enjoy year round, but also like to add to the Christmas table, in preference to pickled gherkins, which would be more appropriate for the season.
The cold cuts. The fish dishes are the stars of the first course, but we also have various meat dishes. Ilpo favours a spiced pork belly, which is rolled and tied, then boiled. It is pressed until cooled, then sliced and served cold. This makes for some great sandwiches over the subsequent days. With a little travel fridge in their car, the in-laws can be relied upon to supplement the menu with some cold cuts from home. These vary from year to year, but reindeer is a favourite, and horse is often present. We sometimes include a Finnish salami. These are rather different from those of our southerly neighbours, being darker and stronger of flavour.
The starch. Finns are obsessed with potatoes. They are grown and consumed in great quantities, and they produce some very tasty sorts. Potatoes form an essential part of many meals and the Christmas meal is no exception. We generally serve simple boiled potatoes alongside the first and main courses. Potatoes also appear in the rosolli, and in one of the baked accompaniments to the main course – see below. Bread is another important staple, and although we have rather lost our connection with bread in this country, the Finns are more likely to value their daily bread. Riitta usually provides us with Maalahden limppu, or Malax limpa in Swedish, a sweet dark bread that is similar to an English malt bread, but without the fruit, and which keeps for a long time so can be easily brought with them. This sweet bread goes very well with the cured fish. I also often add a dark sourdough, which I typically make with a combination of wheat and rye flours. Although not to a Finnish recipe, it does resemble one of their many delicious dark breads.
The main course. The centrepiece of the Finnish Christmas table is a ham, as is typical throughout the Nordic countries. Whilst we have, in the past, cured our own, we now buy an unsmoked gammon ham, which is similar to the cured hams available in Finland. This is first boiled, then the skin removed and the fat cut in a decorative diamond pattern, studded with cloves, and then glazed with honey and mustard and baked until golden in a hot oven. Traditionally, the ham is also coated in breadcrumbs, but I avoid crumbing the ham, as this goes rather soggy and unpleasant when we come to use the leftovers.
The bakes. Accompanying the ham are a number of baked vegetable dishes. That prepared from swede – lanttulaatikko, or kålrotslåda in Swedish – is arguably the most popular and important accompaniment. The swede is cooked until tender, blended until smooth, then subtly spiced, sweetened with a little syrup, and finished with cream, milk, and breadcrumbs, then baked until golden brown. The carrot dish, porkkanalaatikko, or morotslåda in Swedish, is given similar treatment. Rice is a common addition to the carrots, but we prefer a version made with semolina. The potato dish, imelletty perunalaatikko, or potatislåda in Swedish, is rather unusual. The potatoes are boiled in their skins, peeled whilst hot, mashed and combined with a little flour. This is kept in a warm place, where the amylase in the flour breaks down the potato starch into sugars, thus sweetening the dish. Milk and butter are added then it is baked in the oven for several hours. Two things that we do not serve, but are often part of the Finnish Christmas table are a coarse liver pate and a Karelian meat stew, common in Eastern Finland. A dish of spiced red cabbage – for which my recipe here would serve well – is common in some regions, particularly in Denmark, but not usually part of the Finnish Christmas table. It would go well, though, with the ham and other baked dishes.
The pastries. The array of savoury dishes are of most importance to the Finnish Christmas table, and one might well have little need for sweet treats afterwards. We often serve joulutorttu, or jultårta in Swedish, little star shaped tarts of puff pastry and prune jam, and gingerbread biscuits known as piparkakku, or pepparkaka in Swedish, with good strong Finnish coffee.
The beverages. To wash down this delightful assortment of winter treats, the traditional beverages are a mulled wine known as glögi, or glögg in Swedish, followed by vodka and ale. The mulled wine is made with citrus zest, spices, and red wine, sweetened with a little sugar, and served with raisins and almonds, and is the traditional start to the festivities. Vodka is typically served early in the meal and is ideal with the fish. Finnish ale – which we would call lager – is the ideal accompaniment after the vodka. Somewhat darker brews are often produced for Christmas.