My guess is that the biggest difference between South African and Finnish food is the predominance of berries among the diet of most Finns – and, oh boy, are those berries very, very good! The only berry that we really knew well from South Africa was the strawberry – big and beautiful but often fairly tasteless. The Finnish strawberries are very different – so much so that they could even be are conceivably a different plant: much smaller and packed with sweetness.
Then there’s a few types of berries that you might find in South Africa if have a really good grocer… and lots that we’d never heard of before moving here. We quickly learnt about the local blueberries (“mustikka”) and the lingonberry (“puolukka”) – both are really common in the Finnish forests, the whole way from Helsinki up to Lapland. Bog bilberry (“juolukka”) is less common and not eaten as often, but I’ve picked them in Nuuksio and seen lots in Lapland. One of the most special berries is the cloudberry here (“lakka”, “hilla”) – it grows in southern Finland, but is most common in the marshes of Lapland (where the growing numbers of foreign berry-pickers is upsetting some locals). Cranberries also grow in marshy areas (for example in Tiilikajärvi National Park). We’ve not seen many raspberry or blackberry bushes, but they are around too – in fact there is a bush of the closely-related Dewberry right next to my campus bus stop (the berries look like blackberries but taste a bit like mulberries; many thanks to the Helsinki harvest map “satokartta” for mentioning it). And, of course, there are a fair number of juniper berries around too, although they are not the sort of berries that you’d pick and pop straight into your mouth.
This weekend, we had currants (red, white and black) and gooseberries (green and red) in abundance when visiting our friend Kaisa in Kiukainen. While we’ve tasted some currents (“herukka”) before, this was the first time to really dig into these little berries (and to compare the three varieties). But far nicer, to us both, were the red and green gooseberries (“karviainen”) – they have both lovely flavours and interesting textures. We will definitely try to cultivate these berries when we have the chance!
We also saw sea-buckthorn on the same trip (although the berries weren’t ready for eating), which is growing in popularity as a cooking ingredient – we’ve tasted this berry in a fancy starter once before and wouldn’t mind trying it again. They are tough to pick because of sharp spines and because they often grow on rocky sea shores.
And then to round off a very berry weekend, we collected some blueberries just outside of Kiukainen. This was our first time using berry-picking scoops (you can buy them from, for example, Sokos [at the right time of the year] or online; a bit more modern than some old versions) – the scoops worked pretty well (especially when the berries were growing densely), but the harvest needed more cleaning afterwards. A bit of an even trade I guess? We’re now enjoying a handful of blueberries each morning with our usual breakfasts – very nice!
For some more info about these berries and their uses in Finnish cuisine, you can check out the Nordic Recipe Archive.