The Finns rank third in Europe as fish-eaters, consuming around 16 kilos per person each year. That figure is based on sales of filleted fish, but the real figure could be two or three kilos more, because angling is the country's number one pastime and the catches that the fortunate bring home are not included in the statistics.
Fish is relatively inexpensive in Finland and people eat more of it than meat. Naturally, the Finns themselves consider their fish the best in the world, but also many foreign visitors have come to the same conclusion. The fish that swim in the unpolluted lakes and brackish coastal waters are famous for their delicious taste.
Baltic herrings a hundred ways
The most important species in terms of catch size is the Baltic herring, a cousin of the ones caught in the North Sea and Atlantic. When a herring swims in through the Danish straits, it becomes a Baltic one, which is usually smaller and has less fat than its Atlantic cousins.
The Baltic herring is an ideal little fish that allows itself to be cooked and cured in many ways. The simplest and most delicious way is to clean them, roll them in rye flour and then fry them crisp in butter. They can also be filleted, stuffed with chopped dill and fried the same way. Baltic herring likewise lends itself to curing raw in numerous ways, for example in different marinades. There are hundreds of recipes in existence. The marinades can be seasoned with almost anything: tomato, mustard, garlic, dill, vodka or vinegar. Marinated herrings are an especially-appreciated delicacy around Christmas and the Midsummer festival.
The Baltic herring's equivalent in the country's inland regions is the muikku Coregonus albula, a small freshwater species of whitefish with nice firm flesh. They are prepared in largely the same ways as herrings. The most delicious are the smallest ones, so-called needle muikkus, which are salted and eaten whole. One of the best-known delicacies of the Savo region in eastern Finland is kalakukko (literally "fish cock"). This was probably originally invented - quite ingeniously - as provisions for hunters to take with them on long expeditions: a mixture of muikkus and pork baked inside a solid crust of sourdough rye bread.
Another fish favourite is, of course, salmon, which is nowadays often an import from Norway. That is because there are periodic bans on catching wild Finnish salmon to enable them to migrate up rivers to their spawning beds. Salmon is a fatty fish and the preferred way to eat it at festive tables is in freshly-salted (i.e. gravlax) form. Salmon broth, often seasoned with dill, onion and molten butter, makes a delicious meal whatever the occasion.
Other absolute favourites are common whitefish, pikeperch and perch. They are truly magnificent in taste and real gourmet meals can be conjured up from them. A great delicacy in mid-winter is the burbot, a freshwater cod that is ideal in broths and stews. Its large, tasty liver is also used. This fish often yields a generous portion of roe, which tastes best with blinis.
Red roes replacing caviar
Another thing that the Finns have learned to appreciate about fish is their roe; indeed, many consider some of their home-grown fish eggs, especially those of the muikku, to be as good as those of the sturgeon, caviar. Muikku roe is the most-demanded and expensive, around 400 markkas (Euro 67) a kilo. Other popular roes include those of the burbot already mentioned, the whitefish, large-egg rainbow trout roe and the rarer, dark-green eggs of the bullhead. In Finland roe is always sold pure, without any other substances being added.
Yet another taste experience really worth trying in Finland is smoked fish, which has been a big item on the national menu for centuries. Almost any species of fish is suitable for smoking, but those most commonly used are Baltic herring, muikku and salmon. Market stalls sell smoked fish all year round. An unforgettable culinary experience is fresh-smoked flounder, bought straight from a boat and eaten outdoors.