It is mid summer and we are in Northern Finland, staying at Arola Farm with ex-dairy farmers Helena and Eero Sappanen.They are the closest I've come to modern day hunter-gatherers.
As the lid was lifted from the earthenware dish the aroma of a rich, slow cooked stew swirled upward. The tender, slow cooked meat fell away as it was served and I noticed some slices of mushroom in the sauce. “These are the first of the season’s forest mushrooms and I have to get to them before the reindeer” Helena told me. The mushrooms are Boletus edulis – also known as cep. But what is the meat? It tasted like beef but the muscle is bigger. “It’s elk and was shot by my husband Eero” Helena added as she spooned lingon berry sauce onto our plates.
It is mid summer and we are in Northern Finland, staying at Arola Farm with ex dairy farmers Helena and Eero Sappanen. Arola is just south of the Arctic Circle and skirts the Russian border. Close by is Martinselkonen National Park, a Tolkeinesque wilderness where shy bears roam the forest, beavers create their chaos on the riverbanks and capercaillie can be spotted in the trees.
Helena and Eero are the closest I have come to modern day hunter gathers. T hey have to be. The nearest supermarket is 100km away and they have a houseful of guests to feed throughout the year. Some come for the bear safari Eero organises or the cross country skiing. Others come for the astonishing Second World War military history. We are here for Helena’s warm hospitality, food and the opportunity to trek through the stunning Finnish wilderness.
The day starts in the farmhouse kitchen complete with wood fired bread oven . A generous buffet style breakfast is served. Helena has made dark rye bread, traditional rich egg pancakes, porridge, lingon berry and cloud berry co mpote. Slices of cheese are available and so too is yogurt. One morning Helna made a special cheese from ‘beestings’ or first milk - a thick, creamy spreadable cheese which went well with bread and jam.
For drinks - a jug of carmine pink juice made from young rhubarb is on offe r together with good tea and coffee. Packed lunches were made up from the b reakfast table and we set off for a day in the forest. Nothing prepared us for the beauty of the Taiga as the forest biome is known. The Taiga is cove red in deep green sphagnum moss which acts like a giant sponge. Boarded walkways over the wettest areas allowed us to follow the well marked trails to without getting wet feet.
The trails led into deep into the secretive forest threaded with gushing st reams and rivers. It was not long before we spotted a chaotic beaver's lodge made from branches and mud. Lodges are strong enough to withstand bear at tacks and the penetrating winter temperatures.
Delicate lichen known as liverwort coats the trees. Reindeer moss provided another layer of loveliness to this pretty, bright forest. There were even scarlet lichen coating some of the rocks making the whole scene look colou ful and fresh. Amber cloudberries, ink blue bilberries and ruby lingonberries grow in profusion here. In late July gangs of immigrant workers come to the forest to pick the wild berries on an industrial scale.
At regular intervals in the forest were well organised, naturalistic cooking areas. Fire pits were equipped with cooking utensils, a fire bucket, logs and hewn benches on which to sit. Finnish people love hunting, fishing and cooking outdoors. There were even wooden refuge huts painted in pretty col ours. These come with wood stores, stoves and eco loos to help make the for est a wonderful comfortable place to be even in the coldest weather.
In mid summer the climate can be warm and sunny but it can also be cool and rainy. On our return from one walk Helena had prepared the traditional smoke sauna for us to enjoy. “This is the best type of sauna” Helena told us as she lay bunches of birch twigs for us. Its warmth was wonderful and we could look out of a glass window across the rainy forest. Helena also us es this sauna to smoke elk meat and fish. “I allow the sauna to fill with smoke from the wood burning stove and hang the meat and fish for several hours.”
Also on the menu at Arola were fresh water fish. We ate both perch and pike caught from the crystal clear waters of a nearby lake. The pike, a large fish with clean white flesh, was delicious and served baked in a white sauce, flavoured with dill. Helena also made us traditional Finnish fish bread – rather like pissaladiere but with a rye bread base. When the lake freezes in the depth of winter Helena draws on her supply of delicious bottled fish.
We were served fresh vegetables from the farm’s kitchen garden. I was surprised to learn how much grows at this latitude. Helena pointed out “although the growing season is short, the summer days are long and both fruit and vegetable grow very quickly”. I saw rows of beetroot, carrots, onions, peas and beans growing.
We spent a week at Arola and gained a real appreciation of how important a degree of self sufficiency was to people living at this latitude. Helena and Eero do not play at being hunter gatherers. Their survival depends on it. The ability to hunt and preserve meat and fish, grow and cook fruit and vegetables, make bread and simple things like porridge are all life savers when the temperature plummets and a visit to the supermarket may be a month a way. We take food security for granted in the UK but up on the Arctic Circle it is probably wise not to.
We flew Finnair (www.finnair.com) Manchester to Helsinki and on to Kuusamo for £440 per adult.
Two bed apartment, meals, bear safari, smoke sauna and transfer from Kuusamo Airport £880 for two.
Arolantie 5, 89920 Ruhtinansalmi Finland
Tel +358 50 5189775