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June 9th: Trip Assignment – Food

Okay, so one of the things R wanted me to do is this: Seek out and eat a local culinary specialty of the town/region/area. Research its origins, why it's particular to that region, and how it is prepared. take a photo of it and describe the experience of eating/drinking it. Go into lush/sensuous detail.

Bugger. I wish I'd read that before we left. I'm going to have to construct for you a photograph with the magic of words. (Also, we're going back once I get back from the US, so I can photo it then. Not the same, really, is it?)

So, reindeer: it's common knowledge that these herd animals are central to Sámi culture. A symbiotic relationship: the Sámi protect the reindeer herds in exchange for meat and hides, and in return the reindeer prosper. The herd of any given herdsman is a source of pride. You never ask a Sámi what the size of his herd is, but he knows the number precisely. Apparently this is a new thing - herding - and in the old days I think it was a case of tracking the migratory patterns of various herds and taking what you needed at a sustainable rate. I'd draw comparison between Sámi and reindeer and the American Indian* and buffalo, but I think once the Indians got rifles they kind-of went apeshit and buffalo herds got seriously thinned.

So, anyway, reindeer as food source in Lapland: kind of self-explanatory. In Finland? Well, they share a border. Reindeer doesn't live in Finland, however.

Was the reindeer I ate culled from a Sámi herd? Probably. Most reindeer are owned and tagged by someone, and if the reindeer comes from Lapland it'll almost certainly be part of a Sámi-maintained herd. Which means they roam free and once a year a certain percentage are culled. Pretty much the ideal, sustainable model. And the Sámi have a very close relationship with the herd. I've seen footage that exemplified the nature of this: a herder isolates a female from the herd with his snowmobile, lassos her, gently maneuvres her to the ground, checks whatever he needs to check and lets her go. The telling thing was this: the reindeer just got up, shook itself off and trotted away a few feet to graze on something. No fear, very calm.

J's talking about wanting to get herself a 'reindeer man.' i.e. someone who maintains a herd and sells meat. Again, pretty ideal if you want to eat meat and not be responsible for a lot of fear and suffering. (Ann, the vet I spoke to in Germany, had to spend six months working an abbatoir. What she told me was almost enough to send me entirely vegetarian. May still do. All the stories can be condensed to this one thing she told me: "Just, whatever you do, don't look in their eyes.")

How it's prepared: well, it was sauteed. Erm...

Crap, I may have to pass on this one.

As for eating it. OK:

It came out on a large oval plate. It was a bed of herbed mashed potato with a side of lingenberry. The venison itself was shredded and piled atop the potato, with long green slices of pickle arranged around it. The venison itself, oddly, smelled warm and damp. Like a hot towel. Not unpleasant at all. The taste was a lot like lamb, but with a slight gamey-ness. The texture, again, was a lot like lamb: rough, crumbly, structured like woodgrain almost.

The taste of reindeer by itself wasn't particularly remarkable. Generally I've found meat in general to have a fairly flat, blunt sort of taste. Nothing especially complex generally speaking. Reindeer fell into that category. BUT... and this is the difference... had with a little herbed potato and small dollop of lingenberry, something unlocks. Between the musty, aromatic flavour of the reindeer, the creamy herbiness of the potato and soursweet spike of the lingenberry, a mouthful becomes something that you can't help but savour. After a while the potato begins to mask your tastebuds, however, dulling the full taste of it. Which is where the pickle comes in. A bite of crispy salt-sweet, and everything is refreshed and tastes new again.

J was telling me that Finnish food sometimes gets an unfair rep for not tasting like anything in particular. She pointed out that Finns don't do spices, they do condiments. If the sauteed reindeer I had was any indication of this, then they really know how to choose the right condiment combination to go with a certain dish.

Washed the whole thing down with a glass of dark Aret Runt beer. Full-bodied, malty. Like Newcastle Brown but less bitter.

Overall, damn fine. J's mostly vego for ethical reasons, but if she can find a reindeer man she's going to order in some of that. If I lived here I'd probably do the same thing. If you ever make it to Finland I recommend trying it. We went to Cella, by the way, near Hameentie. I understand their meatballs are legendary (and especially good after a night of heavy drinking.)

*: I've heard enough Indians say "I'm not a Native American, I'm a goddamned Indian" that I trust you'll forgive me for sticking with the archaic.

June 13th – Welcome to Estonia, Land of the Emergency Pants

June 9th: Helsinki by Night (Take 2)

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