15 October 2012

Big Fish

Long before "good fats" and "omega-3" became sexy, before bagels & lox and the bento box, salmon was appreciated as the wonderful fish it is up here in Lapland.  This is the sort of fish you can base a civilization around - and that's just what the Sámi who gave up reindeer hunting and herding in the 16th century did.  They switched to the 'red meat of the sea,' as I like to call it.  And they took to the Teno and Näätämö Rivers, which are just swimming with them.
The Teno (or Deatnu "Great River" as it is called in Sámi) is Europe's most important salmon river.  Around 20% of all European river salmon are caught in the Teno.  The world record for largest Atlantic salmon (79 pounds) was caught here in 1929.  Most serious angler are happy to get a 40 pounder, a dream fish for most, but a more common occurrence in the Teno than all other salmon rivers combines.  Postcards around these parts show beaming fishermen holding catches the size of a grade schooler.  The river itself is beautiful, thin and marshy at some points, as wide as a lake at others.  It stretches 210 miles, but when you count its tributaries, you've got a whopping 620 miles of salmon rich water.
Sámi people have depended on and honored the salmon rivers of northern Finland for thousands of years.  As their rights were being defined by the Finnish government, at the end of the 1970s, salmon fishing in the Teno and Näätämö were recognized as essential parts of the Sami culture.  So, the people of this area have constitutional rights protecting their use of the river.  The Sami government is consulted before any fishing laws are drawn up.  For example, worries about salmon farming in the vicinity have headed necessary regulations.  Visiting anglers are not allowed to fish from a boat unless a local is employed as rower.
Norway and Finland share ownership of the great salmon river, as it literally draws the northwestern borderline between the countries.  If you wanted to be very specific, the border runs straight down the middle.  Around 250 years ago, the river marked the line between Sweden and Norway.  This yellow "King's Stone" marked the spot in 1766.  Nowadays, the area on both sides are really just referred to as Lapland and while the Norwegian and Finnish governments have been cooperating on fishing regulations since 1878, it is generally regarded to be more "Sámi' than anything else.
Even more than reindeer, salmon has transitioned seamlessly and successfully into the modern iteration of "cash cow" for the locals of Lapland.  While many leisure tourists would like to spot Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, way more people would love to catch Sammy the pink-fleshed salmon.  (I just made that character up.  Let's just go with it).  Tourism may keep the community afloat as local salmon fishermen are less and less able to compete with the lower prices of farmed salmon.  The Sámi people would like to stick to traditional methods of fishing with nets and rods, but are not able to catch the large numbers they'd need to truly compete.  There's also the scary truth that farmed fish have been spreading bacteria to the wild salmon population in these subarctic rivers.  It's an ongoing battle.  
For now, though, wild salmon can be enjoyed far and wide in Finland.  At the gas station restaurant in Ivalo, at the lunch buffet next to reindeer ragu and whole heads of cauliflower au gratin was a big cauldron of salmon soup.  Creamy salmon soup is a Finnish mainstay.  It pops up everywhere, beyond just Lapland, and is always basically the same.  It is brothy with just enough cream to add a warm milkiness.  The chunks of salmon stand out like gems and the cubes of potato add a silky heartiness.  More elegant than a chowder, chunkier than a bisque, it is dependable and delicious at a road stop cafeteria or in a dining room.
Salmon almost stole the show at the Baltic Herring Fair in Helsinki.  Thanks to the Teno and Näätämö, Finns have long had a relationship with the fish.  They've had a long time to figure out new and different ways to smoke, cure, cook it.  The salmon stands at the Herring Fair resembled deli counters one minute and bakery displays another.  There were cylinders with the criss-crossed twine markings of a smoked ham, spirals filled with cheese sat pretty in cupcake wrappers like frosted cinnamon buns.  Steaks, nuggets, strips, loaves.  Finns really have thought of it all.

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