Friday, 15 May 2009
Eating Eurovision - Finland
If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed it either. In the basement of the Finnish Church in South East London, literally directly beneath the altar, is a sauna. A neat little changing area with pegs for clothes leads off a small shower room, and next door to that behind a pine door is a sauna. It wouldn't be at all out of place in a gym, perhaps even a posh hotel or country club, but it's probably fair to say it's the last thing this Englishman expected to find attached to a place of worship. I persuaded my guide Asko (Customer Service Manager of the Finnish Church in London) to give me a small tour of the facilities of this handsome 1950s building after I'd sampled a few Scandinavian delicacies from the small shop and cafeteria on the ground floor, although even at this stage I got the feeling he'd noticed I was itching to take pictures of the sauna. "Unfortunately I haven't brought my swimming trunks", I quipped. "Finnish people always sauna in the nude!" he beamed back.
Anyway, to the food. The Finnish Church imports a surprisingly large variety of frozen and non-perishable produce from the homeland, much of which was excitingly unfamiliar to me. There was a particularly impressive range of salmiakki, best translated as "salty liquorish", which in fact contains no salt but instead a relatively large amount of ammonium chloride. If you think that sounds unappetising, you're not too far from the truth. I bought a packet and have just tried a couple now - try and imagine the burn of concentrated liquorish mixed with peppermint and salt, in tablet form. They love it over there, Asko assured me. Also on display were a range of Finnish mustard (Auran) to go with the Finnish sausages, which you can grill on the BBQ or boil like hot dogs. I may fire up the BBQ tomorrow and report back on those, but this is what they look like in the freezer:
Also in the freezer section were a variety of Finnish berries, including one called Lingonberry, again completely unfamiliar to me. They look, and taste according to Asko, rather like cranberries, and go very well with the contents of the adjacent freezer - reindeer. Yes, that reindeer - Rudolph and his pals, although if it helps to de-anthropomorphise you can refer to it as caribou. Fry it up with a little water, Asko suggested, and serve with mashed potatoes. I may just do that, although it would perhaps be appropriate to wait until Christmas...
The cafeteria of the Finnish Church serves hot and cold Finnish delicacies, pastries and drinks. Asko recommended something called a Karelian pie, which is a kind of savoury rice pudding surrounded in a rye/wheat mix pastry, topped with egg butter. It was quite lovely - the rice and pastry wasn't anywhere near as weird as I thought it would be, and the egg butter (basically just seasoned hard-boiled egg mixed with butter) was superb.
For a main course, I opted for a plate of fried Baltic herring fillets, served with mash and boiled carrot & swedes. This was hearty, comforting food - uncomplicated in the way that national dishes often are, but full of flavour and texture contrasts. I ate my lunch, washed down with a couple of glasses of homemade lemonade, at a table to the back of the nave of the church itself, surrounded by a good number of healthy looking twentysomething Finns in bright blue SUOMI T-shirts. There are rooms in the building that young Finns working or studying in London can hire out for not much money, and by the looks of things the arrangement is quite popular. It's an attractive, airy building, recently refurbished, and really quite architecturally impressive from some angles (ie. not from outside), so I can see why it would be a desirable option if you were new to the city. Plus, how many youth hostels in London do you know that can boast fresh rice pasties, cinnamon buns and a sauna?
So with my paper Suomi bag filled with frozen treats, I thanked Asko for his time and toddled off back to Canada Water tube. Thanks to Andrew Webb and an idea scribbled on the back of a beermat one evening in central London, I had discovered a community and cuisine I knew next to nothing about previously, and had a hugely enjoyable afternoon into the bargain. At the risk of repeating myself, bear in mind on Saturday night when you're watching the hysterical camp of the Eurovision contest itself, that although the politics may be depressing and the music for the most part dreadful, true cultural identity and pride in that identity can still be found in our national cuisines. And if I was Finnish, given the choice between that Karelian pie and the truly awful song they've submitted this year, I know which one I'd most want to be associated with.
Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I want to be
Eating breakfast or dinner
Or snack lunch in the hall
Finland, Finland, Finland
Finland has it all
You're so sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad
"Finland", Monty Python's Flying Circus
Eating Eurovision main site