Finnish cuisine with Sami Tallberg
and his recipe for elk tartare

Northern lights in Finland

Finland

The landscape of Finland is heaven for anyone with an interest in foraging, with more than 70% of the land covered by forests and an astonishing 188,000 lakes. Its people traditionally have a strong attachment to nature, and agriculture plays a much smaller role than in many other European countries. Sami Tallberg cooks with the seasons, using whatever is provided by nature to create stunning dishes such as elk tartare.

What food did you grow up eating?
“Everything was homemade, but humble. It was basically boiled potatoes and some kind of braised meat; that was the main dish. I was born in ’76 and that was what people would eat in Finland in the ‘80s. Hardly any vegetables were served, maybe just a tomato or cucumber salad on the side.

“That’s not as common anymore; it’s only a memory. There’s one restaurant here in Turku that still serves that food, and it feels like a time travel portal. It’s strange that there still is a place that serves the same food I grew up with. I have very fond memories of that food and don’t have anything against it, but I don’t enjoy it that much anymore.”

Were your parents cooks as well?
“Both my parents went to culinary school and worked in restaurants, but not high-end ones, just everyday restaurants. They did have very good basic knowledge of cooking though, and they both always made an effort to make good food at home. Besides that, my dad is also a great fisherman. Some of my best childhood memories are when I was catching fish with my dad, driving to our summerhouse and hot smoking them – eating them with our hands. That’s one of my warmest food memories.”

That connection to nature is very important in your own cooking as well, isn’t it?
“Yes, but my fascination with the wild started in the UK rather than in Finland. I was a chef in London for eight years, and there was this one moment that changed my life. I remember seeing an old ‘70s vintage Volkswagen stopping in front of our restaurant, right before the busiest lunch service of the week. This longhaired hippie guy jumped out, stumbled to the back booth and slung a big bag of something over his shoulder and started walking straight towards me.

“I was about to cook for our 120 guests so I asked him to wait. When the big rush was over I asked him what he had. It was sea kale. I was like: who the fuck are you, what the fuck are you doing here at this time of day and what the heck is sea kale? It was so bizarre. I took a handful of sea kale, cooked it for two minutes or so and tasted it with some hollandaise sauce I had at hand…

Sea kale

"To my taste buds, sea kale is the noblest plant on this planet."

Sami Tallberg

“I can guarantee you: to my taste buds, it’s the noblest plant on this planet. It’s comparable to artichoke and asparagus. It has such a beautiful character. When it’s young, it’s white and sweet, then it turns violet to blueish-green and gets more salty. Then, the plant flowers, and if you smell it with your eyes closed, you’d imagine that you put your head into a big bucket of warm honey. It’s an unbelievable plant.

“As a coincidence, we got these four huge, spear-caught brill [a species of flatfish] on the same day. The Fish of the Day for that evening was brill, sea kale and hollandaise. We started service at six and were sold out at seven. I realised that it wasn’t just this hippie, who turned out to be wild food expert Miles Irving, and me who were keen on this plant – everybody went crazy for it. This one day in a restaurant in east London changed my life.”

But then your maiden foraging trip had yet to come.
“Yes, and it blew me away. We were in the coastal area of Kent, eastern UK, and it was low tide. There were shitloads of oysters, so we had, like, 24 of them to start with. It was peak season for sea kale, and we had our baskets full in five minutes… I just thought: wow. Then I wondered out loud what this smell was, and Miles said: look around while youre foraging, you need to start searching. But I didn’t know the plant. It happened to also be the time wild fennel is blooming and it was a windy day. The sea wind forced the smell of aniseed up my nostrils. There was so much fennel that you couldn’t pick it all…

Wild fennel

Wild fennel

“On that same day, we then started looking for St. George’s mushroom, a spring mushroom that happened to be my favourite mushroom at that time. Miles said to me that we could go to this spot with a guaranteed good supply of those. I got so excited but when we got there, there wasn’t a single one. This was also part of my understanding that you can’t demand from nature. You get what nature provides to you and you need to respect what’s available. But instead of the mushrooms, we found this beautiful, paradise-like spot in the middle of the woods. A stream ran through that area, and this stream was covered with my favourite salad leave at the time: beautiful, young, sexy, bright green watercress. There was so much of it. I was in heaven.

“What happened to me then, I can finally put into words now. I didn’t realise it this clear at that time, but I connected with nature and felt the kind of loving presence and caretaking character of Mother Earth. Ever since I’ve been letting that information from nature come to me. It was meaningful, because it was such a contrast with the London restaurant industry. The kitchens are made with stainless steel, white tiles. There’s pressure, heat, stress. But we were at this spot, in the middle of the woods, and it was the total opposite. I was amongst the most beautiful ingredients I was aware of at the time. It had a balancing and healing effect.

“I spent another four years in London, and using these wild plants became my trademark in London cooking. I always had dishes on the menu that included wild herbs. If there was a dessert for which I previously use almonds, vanilla and brown butter, I’d infuse that dish with meadowsweet to get similar aromas. If I had used rocket in a dish before, I would replace that with wild plants that had similar qualities, like yellow rocket cress or watercress that could be found in the wild.”

Dish using wild herbs

Instagram.com/samitallberg

I can imagine that returning to Finland, a whole new world opened up for you.
“It was 2008 and the ingredients supply in Finland was incredibly poor. Everything came from this central vegetable supplier, and you could tell by the driver’s face that he wasn’t carrying anything lively, nothing actually fresh. I asked Miles to join me on my first foraging trip in Finland and realised that the essence of Finnish cooking is the connection to the wild. Like in other Nordic countries, we have this Everyman’s right here, which means that we have the right to go and pick these plants. Nobody has ever limited us on that.”

Finland has long winters – what’s the picking season?
“It starts about now [end of March] with the micro herbs, and runs until November or even the beginning of December with mushrooms like the enoki. I’ve got over 70 species of mushrooms and over a hundred different plants that I forage. I can forage for a full eight months. It’s pretty intense to roam the wild and eat what you find. It’s so nutrient-dense – it’s good to take a break for four months to respect nature and plan for the next season. It’s also time I use to read more and process what I’ve learned and gathered from the previous year. It’s all in balance.”

So many different species! Any dangerous ones?
“I always try to find out first. I’ve never picked and tried a poisonous plant or mushroom; I’m very cautious with it. There are many dangerous mushrooms, but we have around 20 very poisonous plants. A few of them are so poisonous that you would die almost immediately after eating them. Mushrooms are trickier; you avoid certain groups of mushrooms – white ones for example.

False morel

"I think Russia and Finland are the only countries consuming the false morel, a deadly poisonous mushroom."

Sami Tallberg

“Foraging mushrooms is different from foraging plants as well. Plants pretty much turn up in the same spot every year, just the flowering is different depending on the weather conditions, but mushrooms – you fucking never know.

“But not all poisonous mushrooms are inedible … I think Russia and Finland are the only countries consuming the false morel, a deadly poisonous mushroom. You boil them for 5 minutes, discard the water and replenish, boil for 5 minutes again, rinse them, squeeze the blanching water out – and then they’re finally edible. The texture is sublime, the flavour is earthy and smoky, almost peaty!”

I would love to try! But only if you prepare them… Which wild ingredients did you find most surprising?
“Meadowsweet. There’s a lot of it and the whole of Finland actually smells of meadowsweet in the first two weeks of July. It’s a scent that everybody recognises. When I use it for cooking, it usually triggers childhood memories. It has a bitterish almond and apricot kernel taste, with the sweetness of brown butter.

“Another one is the notorious weed dandelion. It’s one of my absolute favourites. Anywhere you go you can find it, and it’s so tasty and versatile! You can use the root, the shoot, the leaves, the flower buds, the stem, the flower and even the seeds. I think it’s important to highlight that many edible plants are actually plants everybody knows. I could name hard to find ones, but I’d rather mention these two common ones!”

Lapland in wintertime

Finland is a long country. Is it much different up north?
“In the northernmost area of Finland and Lapland, the berry season is like the asparagus season in Spain or France. The berries emerge and nobody sees each other for six weeks because they’re picking berries. People up there are very humble and modest. They eat to stay alive and eat the cleanest, most nutrient-dense, wild food on the planet without knowing it or making a big fuss out of it. Also, everything tastes different up there because it’s so far north. In the summer, it’s light for two, almost three months straight. Everything grows intensely and the nights are cool on top of that. That combination makes everything taste totally different than it would in eastern, western or southern Finland.

“People in small communities in the north don’t sell or buy their food. When I took my first trip to Lapland, I was eating elk rump with a couple of local guys. I asked one of them how much they paid for the meat and they were rolling their eyes: why would they have paid anything? Everything is exchanged. I think that’s beautiful.”

Elk tartare

© Liisa Valonen

The Dish

So: elk tartare. What do you love about it?
“It’s so packed with nutrients and potential. The more wild foods we eat, the more we appreciate nature. We’ve got to let the nutrients into our systems, into our guts. We recognise this, it’s like an ancient connection with nature. That we’re not above nature, but part of it.”

Is this dish popular across the country?
“Yes! On the west coast, people make the tartare with fish. You’ll find more game towards the east and the north. It’s a good way to underline the versatility of wild fish and meat.”

If there’s no elk available, do you suggest using any other type of game or fish?
“Yes! Use other game meat like venison or deer, or wild fish. The same applies to the garnish: just use what you can find and what’s in season. In the springtime you can use wild herbs, garden vegetables like peas or courgette in the summer. Root vegetables and mushrooms in autumn or winter.”

Any vegetarian suggestions?
“Of course! You can make it out of Jerusalem artichoke or beetroot. Chop it up, cook it, then dry the little bits in a dryer at 42C/107F for eight hours. It makes it really meaty and chewy in a pleasant way. If you make the vegetable tartare, it’s not secondary to fish or meat – providing you treat the vegetables with the same respect. The most important thing is that you source the best ingredients, grown in natural surroundings. Beetroot tartare seasoned with rose petals will blow your mind.”

What about this potato bread?
“It’s very typical Finnish bread. I think it’s actually one of the reasons that pizza was such a big hit in Finland. Five or so years ago, there was this questionnaire: what’s the current national dish, in your opinion? The winner was pizza! We have a long heritage of flatbread, so when pizza came it was easily adopted. The recipe changes a bit depending on where you go. Different potatoes, or with buttermilk instead of regular milk, barley kernels as an addition, and so on.”

The Ingredients

Potato flatbread
500 g
potatoes (starchy ones, boiled until soft and mashed)
200 ml
milk
2
eggs
500 g
plain flour + extra for the frying pan and on top of the bread
1 tsp
fine sea salt
1 tsp
baking powder
3 tbsp
melted butter for brushing the breads
Tartare
300 g
elk fawn meat, trimmed (you can use frozen meat if it's bright in colour, which means it was fresh when frozen), or other game meat or fish
1
small onion or large shallot, peeled and finely diced
4 tbsp
finely diced sour pickle
4 tbsp
finely grated turnip, parsnip or celeriac
2 tsp
mild mustard
4 tbsp
fresh herbs (chives, chervil, tarragon, parsley, thyme)
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
Potato flatbread
3 cups
potatoes (starchy ones, boiled until soft and mashed)
7 fl. oz
milk
2
eggs
3 cups
plain flour + extra for the frying pan and on top of the bread
1 tsp
fine sea salt
1 tsp
baking powder
3 tbsp
melted butter for brushing the breads
Tartare
1.5 cups
elk fawn meat, trimmed (you can use frozen meat if it's bright in colour, which means it was fresh when frozen), or other game meat or fish
1
small onion or large shallot, peeled and finely diced
4 tbsp
finely diced sour pickle
4 tbsp
finely grated turnip, parsnip or celeriac
2 tsp
mild mustard
4 tbsp
fresh herbs (chives, chervil, tarragon, parsley, thyme)
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper

The Recipe

Total preparation time: 1 hour | Yield: 4 servings | Category: main

Potato flatbread

  1. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl and flatten the dough onto a cast-iron pan sprinkled with some extra flour.
  2. Prick the top of the bread thoroughly with a fork. Brush the top with the butter and sprinkle the rest of the flour on top.
  3. Bake in the oven at 250C / 480F for 5 minutes. Turn the temperature down to 200C / 390F and bake for another 5 minutes.

Tartare

  1. Scrape the meat with a fork until finely minced. Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Serve with the flatbread with fresh herbs.
  2. You can garnish the dish with peppery Nasturtium flowers and leaves, anise-flavoured tarragon, fragrant hyssop flowers or simply with rocket.
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