There were trees everywhere - Finland has 15 billion of them - and each one could have been concealing a reindeer (a small creature, standing about waist-high) or a tall, long-legged elk. But none was. Only when the track emerged from the forest of Christmas trees into an upland combe did I catch my first sight of reindeer. It was in a sandwich.
In the centre of the combe was a hut built from massive stones and logs; in front of it, a campfire was burning. Laid out on stones around the fire were smoked reindeer sandwiches in flat Lapp bread. And brewing on the fire itself was a pot of reindeer stew. When we see reindeer, we think of Santa Claus; Lapps think of lunch. For them, a reindeer is less a sleigh-puller than a source of hot meals.
From our guide, who had, awesomely, lived an entire year in British Columbia eating only what she could grow, forage, shoot or trap for herself, I learnt the various nifty ways with reindeer that can enliven a Christmas feast.
The traditional method is simply to dry it. You hang your reindeer in a net under the eaves of your house and let sun, snow, wind and freezing temperatures cure it. When half your reindeer has disappeared through evaporation, it is ready. This takes about a month. Then you simply shave bits off with your sheath knife. It has a biltong-like flavour and chewability.
The smoked variant also takes patience - plus a handy birch tree, a juniper or two, and a Lapp tent. First, coat your reindeer loin with sea salt and leave it overnight, before hanging it in the vent of your tent. Then light a small fire in the centre of the tent, using birch wood stripped of the bark, which imparts too bitter a flavour. To this you add, from time to time, some juniper branches. The temperature you want, should you have brought your meat thermometer to the Arctic, is 55-80C (130-175F).
You now retreat into the howling waste (to hunt mushrooms, if it is the right season) while the reindeer cooks for four to six hours. Delicious, again, shaved with your sheath knife, with a salad of chanterelles, boletus and Lactaus agaric mixed in sour cream and a handful of Arctic cloudberries, lingonberries or rowanberries.
You shave the meat finely because any animal that has been allowed to roam freely on miles of Arctic tundra for a millennium or two is a little tough. For this reason, home cooks, as we later found at our village log-cabin lodging, prefer to cook it venison-style - hung until the dogs go mad, and marinated in red wine, wine vinegar, olive oil, juniper berries and rosemary before roasting or grilling followed by 'glow-frying' (basting on a spit) or simply stewing with allspice and bay leaves.
A classic reindeer gravy is made from its own juices combined with other game stock, spiked with blue cheese, juniper berries, thyme and lingonberries, for which redcurrants would be a reasonable British substitute. Rowanberries go well with it. Or better still, take your knife out to the forest again and make some spruce-shoot jelly. To begin with, cut your Christmas tree, making sure it is of the Norway spruce variety. Take only the new, soft green tips. Soak overnight, then boil until they turn red-brown. Jelly them with sugar and pectin.
Lapps, of necessity, eat every part of the animal. But for those of tender sensibilities, I will pass over reindeer balls, and the prospect of peeling reindeer tongue and serving it julienned, in soup or in aspic.
But you should know about one of the most renowned of Finnish recipes: elk in elk-nose sauce. The nose has to be carefully cleaned, I was glad to hear, before it is parboiled and the 'foam' skimmed off; it is then simmered for four hours to become tender. The elk itself is simply sliced in steaks and fried. The sauce consists of the elk-nose stock, still somewhat murky even after clarifying, rowanberry jelly, and the elk-nose itself - elegantly diced.
All this, of course, is only if you can actually manage to find an elk. And even then, only if you can bear to cook him and his velvety nose.
I had the salmon.
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