Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Food Fights

My wife comes from the town of Varkaus in the heart of Järvi-Suomi (the Finnish Lakeland) in eastern Finland. Varkaus, whose name means “theft” in Finnish for some reason, is a small industrial city dominated by a massive paper mill on the shores of a lake that’s part of the sprawling Lake Saimaa system.

When I first got to know the place in the early 1980s, my wife’s parents lived outside of town next to a canal in a house that was part of the pilot’s station that my future father-in-law ran.

This waterway, the Taipale canal, Finland’s first canal employing locks (sulkukanava), was dug in the 1800s, during a period of hard times in the country. It was a boom to the local economy, but came at some heavy costs. Close by are the mass graves of the hundreds of workers who succumbed to disease and poor living conditions during the construction of the half-kilometer-long canal.

Because it links two parts of a vast network of interconnected lakes (the Vuoksi water system, Vuoksen vesistö), the canal allows boats, even sea-going ships, to penetrate deep into the interior of southeastern Finland. Saimaa, the biggest part of that system and fourth largest lake in Europe, is itself connected to the sea by means of the Saimaa Canal, which crosses into modern-day Russia.

Part of my father-in-law Aaro’s job, and that of the other half-dozen or so pilots working there, was to guide Soviet or German cargo ships safely through the local waters to industrial centers like Varkaus and Kuopio.

Living next to the canal is a handy arrangement if you're a lake pilot, having your work close by. I recall that large Soviet ships were sometimes moored there, just a few meters from my wife’s childhood home, waiting for their turn to proceed and unload their cargo of birch logs destined to be turned into paper.

"Sweet Russian Stuff"
 Many of these ships made the same journey regularly, and over the years Aaro got to know their crews well, in fact, well enough that theythe crews of the Soviet ships, at leastwould often give him gifts, such as Russian chocolate and caviar. (In return, they often asked to get spare Finnish plastic shopping bags.) And once they gave a couple of cans of something that was a minor mystery to us.

We, my wife and I, called this canned item “sweet Russian stuff”, because we didn’t have clue what it actually was. The label, with a simple blue and white design, was in Russian, which we couldn’t read. The contents were creamy white, a little like pudding, thick and very sweet.

In fact, it was so sweet, that no one else, my wife or her parents, were especially keen on it, so it was left to me, with my oversized sweet-tooth, to consume it all – not at one go, but gradually, spooning it straight out of the can. I still have fond memories of the stuff.

Those memories resurfaced a year or so ago when I happened to be checking out the “foreign” food aisle in the big grocery store in Tammisto. One end of the aisle is stocked with various American products (Pop-Tarts, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, Welch’s Concord Grape Jelly, Betty Crocker Whipped Cream Chocolate Frosting, just to mention a few of the Yankee delicacies there). At the other end are items from other countries, meaning mostly from Russia.

Much to my surprise, there on the shelf in front of me, were, after all these years, cans and cans of Sweet Russian Stuff, just as I’d remembered them.

Motivated by that moment of nostalgia, I decided to find out once and for all what it was, this product that is obviously a staple popular enough with the local Russian expat community to import it to Finland. Using Google Translate, I discovered it’s simply condensed milk, sweetened condensed milk.

Why I didn’t recognize it as such back when I first encountered it, I can’t say. After all, we do have condensed milk in America – though since I’m not a baker in any sense, I’m sure I never crossed paths with it before coming to Varkaus. And it’s somehow practically unknown in Finland.

The fact that I can now find it on a local grocery shelf says something about the closer culinary ties Finland now has with Russia – okay, maybe not a lot, but something.

Despite being close neighbors, it seems that not a lot of Russian food products have make it across the border in past years. Of course, the two countries have a shared history, so there are some foods that are traditional in both. There’s pickled herring (of course), rosolli (винегрет in Russian, and one of my favorites of the de rigueur Finnish Christmas dishes), paskha (па́сха, eaten at Easter, especially in the Orthodox community), kiisseli (кисель, which my mother-in-law often serves as dessert), and blini (блины, the small pancakes eaten with different types of savory toppings).

In my family, we used to make a variation of blini, using a special cast-iron frying pan to cook small pancakes (lettuja) made with regular batter (not the proper yeasty type) and eating them blini-like with chopped pickles, onions and shrimp.

Still, in terms of more modern influences, you’ll find many more Tex-Mex and sushi items in stores here than anything obviously Russian. And, strangely enough, even in these freer, post-Soviet times, there are way more hamburger, kebab and pizzeria restaurants than Russian ресторанов.

"Putin's Cheese", Valio's Oltermanni for the Russian market.
For decades, authentic Russian cuisine was embodied in Helsinki by three iconic restaurants, very lavishly decorated in plush velvet, if I recall correctly, and oozing Slavic atmosphere. I visited them rarely, years ago, and on the company dime since they’re quite pricy. In one, you used to be able to order up a meal of bear meat, and I think you still can.

I’m not that familiar with the restaurant scene in Helsinki nowadays, but my impression is there still aren’t that many Russian restaurants here, though there are now a few blini places scattered around town. Maybe I should check them out sometime.

As uncontroversial as you would think something like food would be, over the last few months it has become an unexpected focal point of somewhat strained Finnish-Russian relations.

In retaliation for growing economic sanctions from the West, the Russian government has imposed its own sanctions that, while intended to punish EU countries, also in some sense targets its own citizens.

In August, Russia decided to ban most foodstuff imported from the West. This had an immediate impact on the Finnish food industry, for which Russia is a hugely important market (worth 430 million euros in 2013). The most conspicuous impact, and the most publicized, was on Valio, a dairy cooperative and the biggest Finnish maker of cheese and milk products.

Russia is an important market for Valio’s products, including its popular Oltermanni cheese, and the abrupt nature of the Russian ban caught the company by surprise. It put Valio in a pickle.

Truckloads of Oltermanni (or, rather, Олтерманни) cheese, intended for the Russian market and already en route, were turned back at the border. Likewise, a large amount of Russian-bound cheese sitting in Valio warehouses and ready for shipment, suddenly had nowhere to go. Because it had already been packaged and labeled in Russian, it could not be sold anywhere else.

About a week after the Russian food ban was announced, the Finnish state stepped in to help food producers like Valio. The government suspended certain regulations concerning food labeling, allowing Valio’s surplus cheese to be sold locally in Finland.

It even made the evening news, which featured scenes of heavily discounted one-kilo packages of Олтерманни сыр being snatched up by eager shoppers in a big grocery store in Kannelmäki in northern Helsinki.

All this cheap cheese flooding the market was immediately dubbed “Putinin juusto” (“Putin’s Cheese”). The tabloid media had a field day with it.

"Molotov Bread Basket"
(RRAB-3 cluster bomb)

As it happens, there’s a much less light-hearted precedent for such a wry nickname.

At the outset of the Winter War, the opening stage of World War II for Finland 75 years ago this week, the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed that the Soviet planes dropping incendiary bombs on Finland where in fact humanitarian flights. They were dropping “bread baskets”, he said, for the starving Finnish population. You cannot make this stuff up. Or, rather, maybe you can.

In any case, the Finns promptly christened these lethal cluster bombs “Molotov bread baskets”. Finns also coined the better-known term, “Molotov cocktail”, to refer to the very early improvised explosive devices they used against Soviet tanks. Chances are “Putin’s Cheese” won’t catch on quite as well as "Molotov cocktails".

The morning after Putin’s Cheese went on sale, we were heading out of town, but decided to make a small detour to the Kannelmäki store featured in the previous night’s TV broadcast.

I suspected we were too late to take advantage of the half-priced Oltermanni. I shouldn’t have worried. As we approached the dozen or so shoppers clustered around the cheese bin, store employees were arriving with another pallet loaded with the stuff. The supply was obviously far from exhausted. We bought six packages, for ourselves and to give our sons. It was a bargain hard to pass up, especially since this is the very brand of cheese we eat every day.

That was over two months ago, and the effects of Russia’s counter-sanctions have mostly faded from the news. Putin’s Cheese is all gone now. It was a good deal for shoppers while it lasted.

The Russian ban is still in place. Shortly after it was imposed, an exception was made for lactose-free products, for which Russia seems to have little capacity to produce itself. But the ban was then just as quickly re-imposed on those products as well, at least temporarily.

None of this has been welcome news for the Finnish food industry. Valio surely took a loss on its Russian-labeled products, though being able to sell them domestically must have helped somewhat. The government has estimated that the ban affects 2.6% of the overall Finnish food production. It has already resulted in some job losses.

For Finnish consumers, the impact, for good or ill, has been minimal. The same can’t be said for shoppers the other side of the border, where the sudden lack of western imports, which made up some 40% of Russian consumption in dairy products alone, has reportedly led to a rise in prices. 

The Kremlin has claimed its ban will be an eventual silver lining for the Russian food industry, spurring it to step up and start producing domestic alternatives. We’ll see.

If Russia does start producing cheese for the export market, I’ve got an excellent suggestion for a brand name that’s memorable and pithy. And it has guaranteed worldwide name recognition. Maybe I should trademark it first. 

1 comment:

  1. I figured the stuff was milk. Because your description of it seemed to be identical to the dense cream that the Brits put in their tea.

    When I was very young my parents took me on a long trip to Maine. (My dad built his own truck camper to take us up there.) Among the staple goods my parents put in the pantry were cans of sorghum syrup. As you know, it's the cheapest stuff ever made for folk with a sweet tooth. I don't care for it. But when we got to Maine our relatives who saw the metal cans of it wanted to try it. They'd never even heard of it. They liked it so much that they offered to trade tins of pure maple syrup can for can for our sorghum. Yes, they knew that the maple syrup was a lot more expensive, but in those days (1963) there was just no distribution network set up to take sorghum syrup into New England.