Page last updated at 15:16 GMT, Tuesday, 5 July 2005 16:16 UK

Finns find food quip hard to swallow

By Ilpo Salonen

Finnish people basking in hot, glorious sunshine felt a bit of a cold snap from France as President Jacques Chirac pronounced Finnish food practically inedible.

Most Finns seem to have mixed feelings about his comments: the French are generally considered sophisticated and chic but Mr Chirac's opinions make them seem a bit rude.

Mr Chirac might have been put off by an unfamiliar Finnish dish
A French embassy official in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, has denied that Mr Chirac said anything derogatory about Finnish food.

The whole affair has been invented by the press, he said.

A senior commentator on European affairs, Erkki Toivanen, pointed out in the tabloid Iltalehti how surprising it was that Mr Chirac apparently has such a low opinion of what Finns eat.

When he last visited Finland in 1999, he had some very sophisticated dishes at the dinner with then President Martti Ahtisaari: venison, fish, reindeer and so on.

Or maybe it was the thought of reindeer that put him off?

Elk and reindeer

"Why do those Europeans want to mock us all the time?" asked an elderly gentleman on the lakeside near Helsinki.

He was referring also to earlier comments by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who compared Italian and Finnish food culture and found the latter vastly inferior.

Finnish food is quite good, we eat a lot of fish and that's healthy, isn't it?
A young Finn

"A few years back we had a boycott on French wine when they did nuclear tests. I don't think this merits anything like that. And I don't eat French food anyway. I like burgers," commented a young man pushing a rowing boat into the water.

"Finnish food is quite good, we eat a lot of fish and that's healthy, isn't it? When I was a child I used to go to the woods to pick up mushrooms and berries. I still enjoy them a lot," his friend, a girl aged about 20, said.

Public commentators, restaurant owners and food critics think it is nonsense to deride all Finnish dishes, even though there are some traditional specialities which are a bit of an acquired taste.

For instance, a very popular dish especially in eastern Finland is the "kalakukko", a loaf of dark bread filled with herring and very fatty bacon.

Finnish and Swedish every day dishes are very similar: meatballs, mashed potatoes, salmon, frankfurters - and sometimes elk and reindeer.

There are about 200,000 elk in the forests and 70,000 are culled each year.

But probably the most popular "Finnish" dishes nowadays are pizza and spaghetti bolognaise.

Healthy option

In summer, Finns go to their summer cottages to barbecue hamburgers, chicken breasts and especially sausages and frankfurters.

They are washed down with ice cold beer or vodka or both.

"Mr Chirac should come to Finland now. The weather's great and you can't beat a barbecue dinner on the lakeside with good friends. The sun stays up all night and so do we. And yes, we also buy long French baguettes to go with salad and other stuff. Finnish cuisine is very international," opined a mother of two young children.

Some commentators have, however, admitted that sometimes Finnish food can be a bit bland.

This is partly a question of tradition - spices used to be very expensive - but also of healthiness.

During the past decades the Finns have been brainwashed to avoid butter, salt and other ingredients that are bad for your heart.

And herein may lie the problem: as any French cook knows, for a delicious dish you need only three ingredients: cream, cream and cream.

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