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On love and smoked lamb
The taste of Finland at Easter
Somehow it’s three months since I started this newsletter. And I want to thank all of you who have subscribed so far. When I started this in January, I’d just finished writing a memoir about how life in Finland and learning Finnish has helped my life-long struggles with anxiety. I’ve never written a book-length work before and, much as I enjoyed the process, it was a lonely experience at times. I have no idea what will come of that memoir, whether anyone will be interested in such a story. But being able to follow doing that with writing for you here every week, and to even get such supportive comments and messages occasionally, has been a truly rewarding experience for me. Thank you for joining me.
In an early draft of my memoir, I wrote a lot about my love for my son. The detail of it. The things I learned. I did this because, since he fascinates me more than anything, I wanted to document all the joyous new things I experienced of him. But I ended up cutting much of it out. I realised it was just too much, too gushing. It was true, of course, all of it. But it didn’t really serve the message of the book. I have saved a version of that book. Maybe one day he will want to read it. I find the thought deeply comforting that he might be interested in discovering one day what it was like for me to meet him for the first time and gradually watch him become himself.
One of the things I cut out elaborated on the idea that being a father to a son so young was, really, to fall in love afresh everyday, since everyday there was something this tiny being had learned to do or started to do differently.
My son is four now. But this Easter he reminded me how capable he still is of surprising me, of showing me something new about himself.
I had “hidden” some very special Finnish Easter eggs (called Mignon) and other chocolate things around the living room before he woke on Easter Sunday. In order for his hunt to start easily, I put a gold chocolate bunny in plain sight on top of the picture frame next to our sofa. So confident was I he’d go straight for it that, as he jumped onto the sofa next to me, I shifted quickly to protect my groin. My son has a remarkable ability to smack me in the bollocks whenever he gets within a foot of me. Jumping for the chocolate bunny would’ve given him the perfect opportunity.
But he didn’t jump for it. He didn’t even gesture for it. For once, my balls were entirely safe. All that gave away his having seen it was a hesitant little smile, bashful even, and the way his eyes darted to and from the unspoken bunny while I told him about our plans for the day.
I didn’t think he had such control in him.
My favourite Finnish flavours tend to exist somewhere between the delicious and the unnatural.
If you’ve ever tried salmiakki liquorice, you might know what I’m getting at.
Liquorice is pretty weird tasting as it is of course. But salmiakki is liquorice taken up a notch with the addition of a heavy dusting of ammonium chloride. Considering ammonium chloride’s day job is use as a fertiliser, I do wonder where the idea came from to add it to candy. Regardless, its side hustle lending salmiakki liquorice its almost violently salty, bitter and astringent flavour is what it’s famous for in Finland. An astringency that leaves an altogether unnatural feeling in the mouth. Almost painful.
I consider heavily smoked food to fall within this category of unnatural flavours. I’m obsessed with the flavour and effect of smoke on food. Particularly what smoke does to meat. Slow, long hot-smoking tenderises, it renders fat unctuous as opposed to flabby (I truly can’t stand un-rendered fat), and, of course, that unmistakable flavour.
I normally can’t stomach lamb. Too fatty. Too sinewy. Too much to chew. But that was before life in Finland introduced me to hot-smoked lamb.
This year our leg of lamb (they call it Lampaanviulu in Finnish. Translation: Lamb’s violin) was smoked by a friend of my parents in law. A man named Jarmo who lives the other side of town in a small house with an ancient smoker in the front garden.
I am a romantic, I admit. I love the idea of home/locally-made things and fetishise the notion as much as the next romantic guy. But there is a science behind why home-smoked meats taste so good. Smoke is a powerful flavouring, but it is volatile as well. Easily scared away. It mellows and fades in time, even when carefully wrapped.
But it’s also true that a freshly-smoked piece of meat isn’t ideal either. Fresh from the smoker, the flavour can be too strong to the point of harsh bitterness. There exists a sweet point after smoking where a meat has mellowed enough for the bitterness to fade but not to the point the full flavour of the smoke has diminished.
This year our lamb had rested two days from the time Jarmo took it from the smoker and it sat on our dining table. By that point, the smoky flavour was sweet and dark and so intense it lingered stubbornly on my fingers after carving the “violin”.
Together with fresh, vinegary mint sauce (my addition to proceedings) and creamy garlic potatoes (my mother in law’s) it was the perfect Easter lunch.
We followed it with that most traditional of Finnish foods: mämmi. This is the iconic dessert served at a Finnish Easter lunch. It is a thick, dense dessert (perhaps sludgy is a more precise adjective) made of water, rye flour, malt and salt. Some recipes add orange peal, but I’ve never had it that way, and anything that takes away from the uncompromising rye intensity feels like cheating to me.
It is an acquired taste, at least for this non-Finn. But once you’ve put in the effort (and maybe a splash of cream and sugar) it really is not altogether unpleasant. Personally, I love the stuff.
I was lucky enough to work in some very special restaurants during my time as a cook in Sweden.
During those years I learned a lot and worked with some really smart people. I think the fear I’m going to forget it all eventually inspired me (in part) to start this newsletter.
But for now, I want to talk a bit about what I learned smoking things.
One restaurant, the place that became a home from home for me, taught me most of all. That place was called Oaxen and was located on an island called Djurgården near the centre of Stockholm.
At Oaxen one of our most popular snacks was smoked prawns. We smoked them in an ancient, blackened barrel smoker by covering an equally ancient electric element with wood chips, turning it on, setting a timer, and leaving it a while.
They came out tender, sweet, smoky, and, from their original pink, a blushing golden orange.
Tasks like these inspired me to try a bit of smoking at home myself. I didn’t have a battered, industrial smoker as at the restaurant, but I did have a small Weber drum barbeque. And you’d be surprised how good a hot smoker such simple kit can be. All you need is a large amount of wood smoking chips and a small amount of hot coals. Too many and your barbeque will cook things too quickly before the smoke has had the full effect on your food.
First you get the coals hot in your BBQ, push them to the very edge of one side, then cover with your wood chips. Then place what you want to hot smoke (chicken/fish/whatever) on the other side of the BBQ far from the direct heat. Keep the lid on top with the vent open directly above the meat. This way the smoke bastes the meat continually as it exits. When I do this in here in Finland, I add wet juniper and pine branches on top of the chips. It helps keep the temperature down and adds a very special perfume of the forest.
This might sound fiddly but, hey, summer will be here soon. I’d recommend anyone try it. And if you have any questions, just send them my way. To me, this is what it’s all about.
The smell of burning pine and caramelised meat.
There was one guy in particular who helped show me the ropes when it came to smoking at Oaxen. His name was Thomas. He was a barrel of a man, and solid as a rock. He was also a career changer to cooking and, like me, a fair bit older than the other manic, over-energetic young line cooks we worked with. He was an IT technician once upon a time. Now he smoked prawns, cleaned walk-in fridges, and grilled steaks like me.
That alone made me feel safe with the guy.
He was also the father of two young kids.
In addition to what he taught me about cooking, I’ll always remember something he told me in 2018, weeks before the birth of my own son.
Thomas was cleaning down his section at the time. Knowing I had my first kid on the way, and with soapy sponge in hand, he looked to me and told me it was all about to change. He told me this love I was about to learn would be like no other. This love, no matter what happens, will always be. Nothing can happen that will ever take it away. And then, quite frankly I thought, he said, “not like a wife or girlfriend”. This love, for my son, can never fade away.
“It’s like you were born to love him, before you even knew him,” he said.
My mother likes to remind me how much I loved food as a toddler. I was obsessed with feeding. She uses the example of how I would beg my nursery school teacher for her lunch after I’d eaten my own. Perhaps I’m just reconstructing the memory from images my mother has described, but I think I can remember that teacher. She was tall and had short grey hair. Her name was Ziggy and her lunch always consisted of smoked mackerel dotted with coarsely ground pepper.
Smoked mackerel is the first food I can remember truly loving. I was a picky eater as I got older, but smoked mackerel I always loved. Smoked anything, I always loved.
This Easter, unsurprisingly, I found the lamb delicious. The marriage of creamy potatoes, sharp mint and deeply smoky meat was perfect to me. I was born to find it perfect. I will always find it perfect. My love for it is, apparently, hard-wired inside me somewhere.
The mämmi, on the other hand, I chose to love. I chose to love it because, being such a Finnish dish, loving it makes me feel closer to this new home of mine. And to feel closer to this place, is to choose to be closer to the people, the person, I am here for.
Perhaps it is more romantic to think of love as magical, as a thing that happens inexplicably and at first sight. A thing over which we have no control.
But I don’t like to think of love that way. It makes it seem too distant somehow. Too passive. As though I have no responsibility for it. The love that brought me to Finland was a love I chose to commit to. A love my wife and I both chose.
We spent years apart from each other at first, me in London, her in Sweden, before I moved to join her. Those were difficult days. Frustrating at times. It would have been the easy thing, to let it all pass away.
But we did choose. And I take comfort from the feeling that it is an active and ongoing decision that helps nurture love, that keeps it healthy, not just magic, not just inevitability.
I was born to love the smoked lamb. That love is, I suppose, inevitable for me.
Mämmi I choose to love.