Best topic of the summer: Finnish food
By Erkki Pennanen
The most refreshing topic of debate this summer has been, in my opinion, that of Finnish food and food culture. It is unlikely that such a debate would have occurred without external inspiration.
In their uncouth national self-righteousness Silvio Berlusconi and Jaques Chirac did a great favour to us Finns. Their negative comments on Finnish food sparked an unusual, but nevertheless quite necessary and beneficial debate about our food culture.
The smug self-importance of Berlusconi and Chirac, and their dismissals of Finnish food culture, were naturally based on pure prejudices and mental impressions, and not on any personal experience.
While Berlusconi looks askance at Finnish smoked herring, the ordinary Finn is unlikely to choose cow’s stomach (tripe) from an Italian menu. There is no point in taking offence on either side. Every country has its own delicacies, which outsiders are often unable to appreciate at first glance. There are quite a few specialities in the Finnish kitchen that a foreigner will find strange.
It would be a Finnish kind of conceit to assume unequivocally that Finnish food will hold up against all international comparisons. I also like to think that this is the case when the question involves food served to presidents and other important guests. However, Berlusconi and Chirac would seem to be right if their assessments of Finnish food culture were understood in a broader sense.
Naturally food culture in Italy and France has a completely different background and position from the case in Finland. If we have to say what it means in practice, it can be reduced to the recognition that the Italians and French eat better than the Finns. Food and eating mean much more to them than a rapid filling of the fuel tanks of the body, as eating is often experienced here in Finland.
I happen to be one for whom lunch at the cafeteria at work often lasts no more than a quarter of an hour. On weekdays it is also the main meal of the day, because a heavy meal in the evening is not compatible with, for instance, an evening jog.
A typical Finnish meal at work is quite basic. It is regulated by the price of a luncheon voucher, which imposes tough conditions on whoever prepares the food. Planning of school lunch menus involves even tighter economic constraints, even though Finland is a forerunner in the field of free school lunches.
Paulo Pellei, an Italian living in Finland, gave a good description of the cultural differences in a letter to the editor (Helsingin Sanomat 8.8.). He said that Finns do not put as much of an emphasis on eating as they do for many other needs, such as technical development. On the other hand, in Italy and the other countries of the Mediterranean, eating and everything linked with it is a "synthesis of many needs", and people are ready to spend a greater proportion of their income for the purpose.
But why should eating be given a higher priority on the Finnish wish list? Kati Launis asked this question (Helsingin Sanomat 15.8.), making a correct reference to both the short history of the Finnish food culture, and to the different set of values of Finnish society.
The question is a rhetorical one, because nobody is even calling for any changes. What is significant is to recognise that there are truly great differences in the food cultures of different countries, and that these differences have various implications.
It should not be difficult to admit that it is clear that a long and carefully nurtured food culture is also reflected in the ability to cook and, for instance, in the average quality of home-cooked meals and restaurant food.
Discussion about Finnish food culture is so new that some are already dismissing it an elitist affectation.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.8.2005
Previously in HS International Edition:
Foreign Ministry summons Italian Ambassador over Berlusconi comments (23.6.2005)
Berlusconi says he used "playboy skills" in contest with Finland over Food Authority (22.6.2005)
ERKKI PAANANEN / Helsingin Sanomat