Friday, June 26, 2009

Another article in the New World Finn

The following article was recently published in the New World Finn under the title New Potatoes and Carrots: Summer Has Arrived In Finland. I highly recommend this newspaper to folks who are interested in Finlander (Finnish-American) culture. The latest issue is available on-line here although I suggest that you also subscribe to this publication or at least send them a donation. Since the downfall of the venerable Raivaaja there aren't too many Finlander papers out there anymore. I wrote this article a few weeks ago when the first Finnish new potatoes hit the stores and markets.

Summer has arrived in Finland. At first it seemed like it never would. You see, this year, at the end of May the weather situation made it feel like the whole darn country was somehow located at the wrong position on the globe. Temperatures were in the 70’s (Fahrenheit) and the sun was shining for weeks at a time. Even the natives started believing that the Finnish summer was always warm and sunny at the beginning of June. Luckily, reality returned to this beautiful country as temperatures plummeted to the mid-thirties (no, not Celsius), the sun retreated to its summer cottage behind the clouds, and the rain began to fall.

My summers are generally spent waiting for my vacation to begin and then once it actually does, counting down the days until I have to head back to the salt mines. When I’m not occupied with either of these two things I like to fish, read, snooze in the hammock, and pick weeds in the garden. The garden is a small one. I usually put in some lettuce, a few rows of peas, and some cilantro (can’t make decent salsa fresca without it).

The garden during Juhannus weekend.


I also plant carrots, which taste best when their dirt is wiped off on your pant leg and the crunching commences before you leave the garden. The miniscule amount of grit that inevitably ends up as an abrasive between the molars is to be appreciated. At least I appreciate the feeling – it reminds me of where I’m from.

That carrots should be enjoyed this way is something I picked up from my old man, who knows his way around vegetation. Most of the things I know about coaxing plants into productive behavior I learned from him. I’m hoping to put this knowledge into good use this summer as I attempt yet again to grow sweet corn on a lake shore in Etelä-Pohjanmaa. The summer last year just didn’t provide the right conditions for those tasty ears to ripen. I started my corn indoors this summer, my studio space has huge windows complete with springtime sunlight. With the help of that little head start and the microfiber crop blanket that I’m trying out , this summer I’m hoping to enjoy proper corn on the cob (as opposed to the precooked, plastic-wrapped variety which is imported to Finland from Spain).

Sweet corn

There is however, a magnificent domestic agricultural product that thrives in my adopted homeland. Its arrival is something that I anticipate year after year – I start to dream of it before the snow even begins to think about melting. It is the most definite sign of summer.

I know that summer is here already, because the Finnish-grown new potatoes have hit the stores. Why is this such a big deal you wonder? If you've ever enjoyed a meal with new potatoes you shouldn't be asking. If you've never experienced the culinary joy that new potatoes bring, I suggest that you try some as soon as you can.

New potatoes, in the pot, ready to boil.

In Finland, to truly qualify as a new potato, the skin should mostly leave the tuber after a light scrubbing with a vegetable brush and some water. In late winter the stores already start trying to pass small potatoes from Cyprus off as the real deal, but with so much time and distance between the field and the pot, they don't even come close in the flavor department.

By May, the new potatoes from the slightly more southern locale of Skåne in Sweden appear in the produce department, and they come close to making the grade, but again, the time/distance factor comes into effect, and something in the flavor is lacking.

Today I was almost embarrassingly excited when I spotted the first real new potatoes of the season for sale at the local market. The price was high, and will definitely drop in the coming weeks, but I'm not known to skimp on things as basic as flavor, which may explain my usually unspectacular bank balance.

The potato was first cultivated in Finland in the early 1700s. The Finnish word peruna comes from the Swedish päron which means pear. This stems from the fact that the original Swedish term for the tuber was jordpäron or earth pear. This is a bit like the French pomme de terre which means earth apple.

One of the early proponents of this source of nutrition was the "potato priest" of Asikkala, Axell Laurell, who followed up most of his sermons with short speeches extolling the virtues of this immigrant from the Andes. He later penned an instruction book for would-be potato farmers.

Prior to the potato, the Finnish diet was built on a foundation of turnips and rutabagas. The potato enabled a farmer to produce a significantly larger amount of food in the same amount of space simply by switching crops. The potato really started to catch on when soldiers of the army of Sweden-Finland returned from the Seven Years' War, where the potato was a part of their regular diet. In addition to tales of battlefields south of the Baltic, some of them brought home potatoes to plant in their fields.

Perhaps this more efficient source of carbohydrates and vitamins had something to do with the drastic increase in the Finnish population - from 420,000 in the middle of the 1700's to over 830,000 in the year 1800. Increased food availability may have encouraged those small-time dirt farmers to make more babies, which provided a broader labor base, which in turn encouraged greater production, leading to more babies, and so on.

Is it possible that the introduction of the potato to Finland is yet another reason behind the waves of migration to the New World that were to come several decades later? I’ll leave this question to the experts. They may even have this figured out already and I just haven’t read the right books yet.

I’ve got a belly full of new potatoes, something I’ll be able to look forward to for the next few months. My wife has her belly full of baby, something we’re looking forward to at the end of June. My summer routine seems like it’s about to change. Hopefully I can squeeze in a few minutes on the hammock.

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