The man gave out a rather unnerving cry, one that was quickly swallowed by the deep snow and the dense forest. Then there was nothing, just the total and profound silence you become used to in the sparsely populated Finnish tundra.
A grey shape caught my eye, then another and another and suddenly reindeer were everywhere, emerging like a flash mob. They surrounded our camp fire nuzzling their heads at us like friendly cows, their antlers clacking as they occasionally bumped into each other. We threw them moss gathered back in the autumn and, using their flat feet as snowshoes, they cheerfully crossed snow that we would have sunk into to gather their free feast.
I now felt bad about the reindeer tongue I knew was going to be eating later. Not as bad as I felt about the bear meat I pan fried earlier. The reindeer rack though was delicious; I couldn’t feel anything about that except the desire to eat some more.
As the reindeer grew bored and began to melt away my guide produced some dried meat from his bag together with some Finnish vodka. Slicing the meat using a reindeer-bone handled hunting knife he passed me some. It was chewy, not unlike Biltong, the vodka washed it down. ‘It’s moose heart!’ he explained happily and checked his smoke-blackened kettle to see if our berry tea had boiled.
This is life in Kuusamao Northern Finland, Lapland in fact. The Russian border is close by but that’s the only thing that is, the sense of space is remarkable in an area that is more lakes than land, all of them under a thick sheet of ice and snow at this time of year. We snowmobiled back to our start point, Tuomos’s country guest house and restaurant, whooshing over covered lakes that could swallow Windermere with ease, the tree line a distant shadow through the light snow now falling.
Fish is definitely on the menu
At Tuomo’s guest house and Restaurant Juomuskota his wife had prepared a lunch feast, platters of smoked fish, fried pike fillets, hunks of salmon and the ubiquitous Vandace, small sprat sized fish that are harvested in thousands from the gin clear water under the ice, and make up a large part of the diet of these friendly, tough people.
She served delicious lingonberries, cranberries, crowberries, and the greatest delicacy of all, the cloudberry, referred to by the locals as ‘ marsh gold.” harvested locally and for free, as is every Finn’s right, back in the late summer when the endless daylight begins to move into the period of 24 hour darkness. A period that will make up much of winter, the Northern lights the only natural illumination.
Perched up on the toolbox on the trailer of his Snowmobile I hung on desperately as I was taken at speed out over the ice to where a stick marked his fishing hole. He dug it out to reveal a line passing under the ice to another hole 10 metres away; from these two spots a net hung like an underwater curtain and we hauled it up to see what had been caught. Not a lot today and Tuomo went back to the other end of the line to pull and reset the net. For him it’s a hobby, further out the nets can be 400 meters long and the professionals can catch a lot more to feed the demands of the smoking and canning factory in his village of Sossonniemi
Back at my log cabin later, part of the pretty resort village of Rukan Salonki five minutes from the tiny airport, the manageress had prepared the sauna that every cabin is equipped with and lit the wood stove in the large kitchen diner. The stove is mostly for effect, the cabins may be made of aged grey logs and look like a Boys Own fantasy but they’re insulated to a high degree and fitted with ensuites, dishwasher and everything else to keep you comfortable. The snow was up to the windowsills outside, but inside it was T shirt weather.
A taste of tented life
The next day it was off to Isokenkäisten Klubi at the very edge of Finland, so close to Russia that signs graphically warn you not to go wandering without a guide. This is where the borders were redrawn after the war, what was once Finland is now Russia and the indigenous people, the Sami were divided by a line on a map. My hosts Sirpa and Katja Kämäräinen have Sami genes, with the darker skin, the high cheekbones and the slightly slanted eyes that distinguish the people.
They also have a Kata, a traditional Sami wooden tipi next to the frozen lake where they do demonstrations of Sami cooking. The central fire pit billows smoke up and the walls are soot blackened. Sirpa used wooden nails to fix a large piece of fresh salmon to a board which she then propped at the fire’s edge to be smoked and cooked simultaneously.
She dusted Vendace with spices and set them over the flames along with a pot to boil potatoes and carrots. Freshly made cheese was also placed on a board and set to cook while the sisters told of Sami life in the old days. Their father, who built the entire holiday village out of local wood, wandered in and soundless accepted a plate of fish and vegetables, just looking up now and again approvingly as we ate his daughter’s excellent food.
We went out after for a snowshoe walk, guided up slopes and then down to the vast Lake Heikki, each step a massive effort yet quite exhilarating, just one of the many activities offered here, along with racing a stock car with studded tyresover the ice. Across the lake as the light began to fail we saw through the pines the single file lights of a snowmobile safari coming in to spend the night. They’d be using the famous Seven Star Smoke Sauna here, fired the old way with wood under a massive pile of stones and which has to be lit at least six hours before use. They would cool down afterwards by jumping into a hole cut into the lake and then sit and eat and drink as is the Finnish way. ‘Wherever you find a Finn in the world you will always find a sauna,’ the sisters said.
Stylish food in the frozen north
The holiday package includes all these activities and, for foodies in particular, there’s the option of foraging and cooking with Jarmo Pitkänen , one of the country’s leading modern chefs, now based at Studio Tundra his private dining room and kitchen. The first day of the organised food break, and armed with a fresh pike and fresh vendace we’d collected from the local fish plant, snatching them from the fishermen who had caught them less than an hour earlier, we went back to Jarmo’s to learn to cook. I took the proffered glass of champagne , put on an apron and prepared to get busy in the kitchen next to the achingly elegant dining room.
A few hours later we had eaten well – fried bear with tar sauce, vendace fried in butter, pike minced and fried and best of all a rack of reindeer smoked in a tin on the stove top. The Finnish version of baked alaska that we ended on was a winner too, and to think we cooked it all ourselves! Well under Jarmo’s watchful eye of course. A few days later I would come back as a guest, not a fascinated amateur sous chef, and Jarmo would cook a unique seasonal tasting menu as he does most weeks for guests.
This was to include a selection of Scandinavian Tapas such as cold-smoked arctic charr, poached quail egg, roasted chicken liver, goat cheese mousse and horseradish marinated reindeer tongue. These were followed by a remarkably cleansing glass of Seabukthorn granit, itself chased by a fabulous Black grouse tournedos, braised cep and herb bearnaise and finally Goat gruyere, green currant jelly and meadowsweet syrup then a Chocolate Sculpture halvamousse. These were all served on the stylish ceramic creations Jarmo makes himself in his pottery studio under the dining room. Truly a man of many parts.
If you’re a foodie looking for more than the usual Italy/France/Spain experience and you love fresh fish, fresh air, stunning scenery and gentle exercise and fun then the Kuusamo experience is one to go for. It’s very, very ice.
Find out more about chef Jarmo Pitkänen Tundra Restaurant, ceramic and cooking experience. In autumn he also runs foraging and cooking courses too.
Isokenkaistenklubi offers snowmobile safaris (quad bikes in summer) ice racing in a stock car, walking and foraging experiences and Sami cooking all year round
At www.ollilanlomamajat.fi fishing trips are all year round, either through the ice or on the water depending on season
Rukan Salonki have a range of luxury cabins all with ensuite, saunas and BBQ room and can accommodate from 3 couples to around ten all year round.