Finnish people who have spent a long time away from their homeland tend to miss the same things: sauna, salmiak and rye bread. There are many other things besides, but these three can’t be replaced by anything else. Sure, many traditional dishes can be made in a foreign place, using local produce and spices creatively, or by making a pilgrimage to the nearest Ikea for Scandinavian products that are close enough to our own. But you can’t bathe in the sauna, if there’s no sauna. Nothing tastes like salmiak, except salmiak – the strong, bitter and slightly salty black candy you can only find in Finland. And Finnish rye bread, well, it just has to have that real sourdough taste with 100% rye flour and no yeast or added flavours.
For us the easiest of the three is salmiak – it lasts a long time, and we don’t really crave for it very often. The hardest thing to live without is definitely the sauna. Before embarking on our sailing adventure we lived in a farmhouse, and we had the world’s best sauna in our backyard. It was an ancient log building with a wood heated stove with the softest steam and heat. We bathed there every night, summer or winter. After such an experience any other sauna can only be a poor substitute. That’s why we haven’t bothered looking for a sauna along our journey, although we could probably have found one at some spa or a bath. When visiting Finland, we go to the sauna whenever possible, but otherwise we just do without. It’s easier in the summer, when you can swim as much as you like – that’s much more enjoyable than a mediocre sauna.
When it comes to rye bread, we’ve done pretty well until now. We have a large freezer in our galley, and we’ve filled it with souvenir bread from our own visits to the home shire, as well as required our visitors to bring some with them. With careful rationing, rye bread has lasted throughout our journey. But the coronavirus interrupted the import business, and inevitably, one day we ate the very last loaf of bread.
But sailors are naturally resourceful. We still had some Finnish rye crackers in our pantry, and we actually found rye flour at one of the Messolonghi supermarkets, and that’s all you need to make your own rye bread sourdough starter. You can make it without the crackers, too, but it might take longer for it to be active – there are many recipes for making your own starter. I didn’t inherit the rye bread baking gene, nor possess a sourdough starter that has been in my family since a distant ancestress, but the internet just happened to be full of baking instructions this spring. With everyone spending so much time at home during the coronavirus, it wasn’t difficult to find baking inspiration!
If you’re interested in making your own authentic Finnish rye bread, here’s an excellent recipe in English – the link will take you to a blog called My Vintage Cooking.
Wake up the starter by adding some water and flour and leave to rest for 24 hours, covered and in a warm place. If the starter has been refrigerated it might take a couple of days longer to become active.
Day 2 (or 3 or 4)
Before you do anything, scoop some of the starter into a glass jar for future generations of rye bread dough. Then start adding rye flour to the bowl, little by little, and knead until the dough reaches a good consistency. It should no longer stick to your hand or the bowl, but mine did. Smooth the dough and press a cross on top to bless the bread, then cover it with a cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place for at least an hour.
The dough has risen enough when the cross has disappeared. Continue kneading the dough on your working surface sprinkled generously with flour. You can make a big round loaf, several smaller ones or whatever shapes you like out of it. I made small round buttons, as our gas oven is rather unpredictable. A big loaf might be charred on the outside while still raw in the middle, so I prefer smaller pieces. Once ready, place the bread on a baking tray, cover with a cloth and let them rise for half an hour. Prick the surface of the bread with a fork before putting the tray in the oven. The baking time depends on the shape and size of your bread loaves – my little rye buttons took about 20 minutes to bake on the highest temperature.
The first Finnish sourdough rye bread baked in the galley of s/y Aina was delicious!
It took a couple of more times of baking for the starter to mature and produce an unmistakable and truly authentic Finnish rye bread taste. I also found that the Greek rye flour was too finely ground – choose coarsely ground rye if possible. I replaced about one third with coarsely ground wholemeal wheat flour on my second try, and it turned out better.
After playing with dough the traditional way a few times I found a much easier way to bake bread. It’s so easy that we now have fresh bread every couple of days! You can use the same recipe as before, but with only about 2/3 the amount of flour. Or any recipe, really. No kneading, just google Pot Bread and you’re good to go!
This was the first of s/y Aina’s boat cooking posts. Perhaps there will be more some day!