In Lappish Finland, when it comes to berry and mushroom picking, it's people versus reindeer. In fact, in Finland it is legal for people to pick wild fruits and vegetables all over the country, and to catch fish with a line and rod, too. The law is called "Everyman's rights" or Jokamiehenoikeudet and it entitles the general public to roam the countryside foraging for food. Reindeer too, wander through the wilderness, scrounging forest floors and nibbling on plants.
Why does foraged food taste so good? Maybe food grown in the wilderness tastes better because it flourishes without any nasties; or perhaps it's because it is usually eaten fresh or quickly preserved for the cooler months; or it could just be the way it's prepared. "We like to fry mushrooms with cream and plenty of butter," Niina Pietikaine, chief executive of Harriniva Hotels & Safaris tells me over a dish of – you guessed it – fried creamy mushrooms. "And we love to pick lingonberries and make jam – with plenty of sugar, of course."
I'm staying at Harriniva Hotel for a few days, where winter activities revolve around huskies, reindeer and snowmobiles. After a few hours exploring in the fresh (and very crisp) air, hunger always calls. There's reindeer stew and creamy mash topped with lingonberries served at the various on-site restaurants, but the foodie highlight here is dinner in a kota, a simple wooden hut in which Finns rest when out in the bush, with an open firepit in the centre for cooking.
Our guide and cook for tonight, Markus, is already inside the kota when we arrive and the fire is ablaze in preparation for our feast. Rieska, a traditional Finnish flatbread, is served first. Markus warms the bread (baked in an oven that morning) on the fire and tells us that his grandmother used to make the best rieska in his home town. "There's an art to making it and grandmother only ever used barley flour, which is the customary way," he tells us. We enjoy this Lappish delicacy alongside wild porcini mushroom soup which is one part mushrooms to three part creams and consequently very delicious.
The main dish is simple: reindeer hamburger patties topped with smoked cheese and a big dollop of lingonberry-infused mayonnaise. "This is a modern tweak," laughs Markus when I query the mayonnaise addition.
Some of the hungrier people in our group opt for the Finnish hamburger, with the reindeer pattie served between two slices of rieska. We finish with more carbs: day-old cereal fried in butter with blueberries and cloudberries. It tastes a zillion times better than it sounds.
A few days later in Rovaniemi I find myself eating reindeer most days. There's tender reindeer brisket at Roka Kitchen & Wine Bar, roast reindeer with root vegetables at Sky Kitchen & View and reindeer cooked two ways – grilled and sauteed – at Arctic Restaurant in the Arctic Light Hotel (my digs in Rovaniemi).
Reindeer meat is considered to be a healthy alternative to beef and environmentally sustainable. There are more reindeer than humans in Finnish Lapland. I ensure I taste other local foods – salmon caught from a nearby lake, forest mushrooms, grandma's recipe blueberry juice.
The only delicacy I don't find is lichen. When I was staying at Harriniva Hotel Niina Pietikaine told me that lichen – reindeer's winter staple food – can sometimes be found in fine-dining restaurants used as an innovative meal embellishment.
I guess I'll have to return next year. Or leave it for the reindeer.
Hotel Harriniva, part of Harriniva Hotels & Safaris, is near Muonio. Arctic Light Hotel is in Rovaniemi. A stay at either property can be organised as part of a Lapland itinerary through 50 Degrees North. See harriniva.fi; arcticlighthotel.fi
Finnair flies to both Muonio and Rovaniemi from Helsinki. Finnair partner airlines Qantas and Cathay Pacific fly to Helsinki from Sydney and Melbourne. See finnair.com
50 Degrees North offers independent and group tours with a range of Lapland itineraries that include foodie experiences. See fiftydegreesnorth.com
Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of 50 Degrees North and Finnair.