Summer is traditionally backyard barbecue season in the US. For the wife and I, we’ve been looking to host an annual party and we thought that summer would be the season for us. The problem is that the big holidays, Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day, were already taken. So rather than take a random date, I suggested we borrow one from Finland. So here I am planning our second annual Juhannus picnic. I thought I’d share the results of my Juhannus menu research, and also provide a little of the history. (As time permits, and I find good ones, recipes will be added.)
First a little history. Juhannus started from the pagan midsummer festivals which focused on a prosperous upcoming harvest after a long cold winter. It was said that witches and ferries would be confused by the short nights and often let slip visions of the future. (I also think that this was also the time to clean out the cupboards of all the preserved fish.) Moving to more modern time, the new name Juhannus comes from associating the date with celebrations for John the Baptist. But for the average Finn, the holiday is about celebrating summer outdoors with brats and cold beer. (Finnish beers are usually in the style of pale lagers.)
Key to the Juhannus is the bonfire. Not the maypoles you may see in Sweden. Cabin-side bonfires around the lakes at Midsummer can be a magnificent site. I start early by hunting down white ash trees to get that authentic smell. I tend to have two fire pits going in the evening. Of course saunas are another tradition but that can be hard to find.
One of the hardest parts for me to find was a good menu for my Juhannus celebration in English. Everything current seemed to be more about a “modern” celebration. But once I started to find pieces of traditional menus, some of the items for the list were easy. While others were not. (Ikea may be your best helper but to me leaves out part of the fun of preparing things yourself.)
Here’s my traditional menu. By my wife’s request, the first year I left out the herring. So we started with the base, “friendly” menu items. But this year I’m upping my menu by including some things that may “push the envelope”. The second lists add on those items that may be a stretch for non-Finns.
- Nakki (frankfurters and knockwurst) – Don’t go for “hot dogs.” It’s the easy out. Find a good quality frankfurter or knockwurst. I go with Boars Head. These are simply grilled over a fire not boiled.
- Saunalenkki (ring bologna) – A must if you have access to a sauna. The meat is more like bologna than it is frankfurter or knockwurst. Basically this ring is scored, not cut through, at intervals and cheese is placed in each cut. The whole is placed in an aluminum foil package into which a beer is poured. The package is placed on the sauna stone to cook. (I’ve done a similar approach with an oven.)
- Uusia perunoita (new potatoes) – Usually cooked boiled with dill and salt.
- Sinappi (mustard) – There are two things in Finland that will never change. One of those is Turun sinappi. The national favorite was produced for a short time outside Finland after an acquisition but ultimately brought back after another, Auurun, started to take market share with a similar recipe. The red cap, strong, is the unique flavor that everyone talks about. But there’s a lot of home recipes. Mustard recipes can be handed down generations. I will look further into Finnish mustards in another article.
- Lihapullia (Swedish meatballs) – The Sweds won the marketing battle on this one. Swedish meatballs use allspice, nutmeg and butter instead of oregano, thyme, and olive oil used in Italian meatballs. Swedish meatballs are served with a brown or cream sauce. And eaten individually or with the new potatoes.
The more distinct flavors
- “Lasimestarin” Silli (marinated herring) – So for those of us that have grown up in a Finnish household, you have probably seen someone eat marinated herring. For Juhannus, there idea is to serve marinated herring in several different styles, to be eaten with dark bread.
- Graavilohi (Gravlax) – Gravlax is probably most interesting thing to put on the table. It’s salt cured salmon. Start with the freshest salmon you can get. It is made with fresh dill, sea salt, pepper, and sugar and takes at least 4 days to make. When you make gravlax, you end up with a lot. So a party is the best way to use it. This can either be eaten on bread or by itself with potatoes.
- Tonnikalatahna (tuna paste) – I will end my fish trio with tuna paste. It’s basically canned tuna, sardines, eggs, and sour cream. (There are also salmon and herring pastes. All three can be bought in tubes at Ikea.)
- Munavoi (egg butter) – As the name says, its eggs and butter. No mayonnaise here. Consistency can be chunky to smooth. I prefer smooth myself. It is the standard topping for Karelian pastries. But here, it is intent as a pallet cleanser between fish sandwiches.
- Sandwich table
- Breads – ruisleipä (rye bread), vehnäleipä (wheat bread), mallasleipä (malt bread not loaf) or näkkileipä (crisp bread) should be included at the table. Probably the crisp bread to a lesser extend as its intended as a preservation technique, but I like it due to its uniqueness.
- Toppings – Other things to include for the sandwich table are sour cream, dill, chives and capers.
This article may grow over time as I learn of new traditional menu items to add. Also note that you will probably NOT see the second half of these at a Juhannus table in Finland. Today’s table will be more New World with very well done steaks and macaroni and potato salads. For me I see this as a fun way to introduce Finnish culture to friends who, odds are, will never make it to Finland.