The reasons people travel – or want to travel – are changing. When we talk about food and travel, we need to talk about foodways. Foodways are the intersection of food in culture, traditions, and history. They’re diverse, dynamic and a reflection of how people have influenced the places they’ve moved through.
Did you know that Thunder Bay is home to the largest Finnish community Outside of Finland?
Thunder Bay’s origins as a Finnish satellite community go back to the 1870s and 80s when Finns began to emigrate to North America after their home country was plagued by famine, poverty, and political unrest. Canada’s geography and climate was thought to be appealing to the migrants because of it’s similarity to Finland.
According to Culture Trip:
“In 1912 a ‘back to the land’ movement began which allowed any adult man to purchase a plot of land for $1.50, resulting in many Finnish immigrants forming their own homesteads. Communities of Finnish immigrants started popping up in the remote areas thanks to these small farms. Many of these towns still retain their Finnish names such as Finmark, Alppila (named after a district in Helsinki) and Suomi (the Finnish name for Finland). Eventually, several of these communities would be combined to form the city of Thunder Bay in 1970.”
There are now an estimated 15,000 Finnish descendants living in Thunder Bay, the largest Finnish community outside of Finland. The community has spread other parts of the near North as well. It goes without saying that they take great pride in their culinary traditions. The area is home to numerous Finnish bakeries, fish shacks, grocers and of course, saunas. Finnish traditions are woven into the fabric of the city’s culture.
What is Finnish food?
There’s a reason Finland is considered one of the happiest countries in the world! Finnish food has a strong tie to agriculture, woodlands and the sea. Finns tend to shy away from very sweet foods, which is what differentiates many of their dishes from their neighbours in Sweden. Many dishes and menus will celebrate foraged berries, preserved fish, mushrooms, breads of various kinds including dark, fiber rich ryes and potato varieties.
It’s impossible to talk about Finnish food without talking about Finnish pancakes. The thin, buttery pancake is almost crepe-like, but not quite. It has crispy edges and is often so large it will hang off the edges of your plate.
“There’s no leavening in it so that’s why it’s so flat. It’s just egg and sugar and milk and flour and a little bit of salt,” she said. “It’s a classic dish and you can eat it sweet with strawberries or you can put some eggs and bacon on it” said Eija Niivila of Hoito Restaurant – possibly the most infamous spot to procure one of these delicious creations. The Hoito was a restaurant in the basement of the Finnish Labour Temple in Thunder Bay and was rumored to serve over 67,860 pancakes a year! It had been open since 1918, alas last summer, news spread that they had filed for bankruptcy and it’s future is unclear.
If you want to explore the Finnish foodways in Northern Ontario, Thunder Bay and its beloved Finnish pancakes is a good place to start. There are countless other ways to dig a little deeper into this often overlook cuisine though.
Liisa Karkkainen’s famous Fish Shop lies just off the Trans-Canada Highway 11/17 on picturesque Lakeshore Drive, about a 20-minute drive east of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Liisa’s connections among the local Finns have brought some of the best Finnish products and cooking in the area to the shop. The shop specializes in Finnish-style smoked local fish like Lake Superior and Lake Nipigon White Fish, Red Fin Trout, Northern Pike and Lake Herring.
Further east along the coast of Lake Superior, in Sault Ste. Marie, you’ll find Tuomo’s Stubbornly Finnish Food churning out traditional Finnish breads and pastries for their stand at The Mill Market. They bake cinnamon buns, Voipulla – sweet butter buns with a sugary “eye” , dark rye breads and traditional braided Pulla (with or without raisins) flavoured with cardamom. Pulla is fluffy, soft and lightly sweetened. According to Tuomo’s, there is a belief among the old Finns- the thickness of your pulla slices represents the strength of your faith. The thicker- the stronger your faith.
Leinala’s Bakery in Sudbury has been making them for over 60 years. Established in 1961, Leinala’s Bakery has become a vital thread in Greater Sudbury food scene. They’re well-known for their jelly pigs – raspberry jam-filled sugar donuts, pulla, and other Finnish goodies. Head baker Aaron Laakso whips-up dozens of jelly pigs (sometimes hundreds!) every day.
Visitors may not think of authentic Finnish food when they visit Ontario, but that’s part of what makes foodways like these so special. Culture thrives in communities for unexpected reasons and leaves its mark of the food, drink and agriculture sector in the process. It’s this almost magical combination that brings visitors the unexpected flavours, and unforgettable experiences Ontario is quickly becoming known for.