I was invited to go on a six-day culinary tour of Northern Sweden by Visit Sweden. Reading over the itinerary, a few words jumped out at me, words like “reindeer”, “bear”, “elk”, and “grouse”. I began to panic a little. Why had they invited me? I eat fish these days, but I hadn’t eaten meat from mammals or birds since I first went vegetarian about sixteen years ago.
Then I read a little further, and spotted words like “sustainable” and “organic”. That sounds a little more me, I thought. I’ve also recently been re-examining my views on vegetarianism. The whole issue is so much more complex than it appeared to my thirteen-year-old self. There are parts of the world where it is impossible to be vegetarian – vegetables just don’t necessarily exist. I recently read about the paradoxical Inuit diet – which consists mainly of seal meat, is high in fat and protein, and contains no vegetables, yet the Inuit are among the healthiest people in the world. Am I ethically opposed to the way they eat? No, I don’t think I am.
The diet of the Sami people in Lapland is not so different. The Sami have always lived in the far north of Scandinavia, where not much plant life grows and the main food is reindeer. The Sami were a nomadic people, following the reindeer migration. Nowadays they mainly live in villages and towns, but travel to their reindeer herds at least a couple of times a year first to mark the reindeer with the distinctive ear snips that mark ownership of every reindeer in Scandinavia, and second to slaughter the reindeer. The reindeer can depend on the Sami as much as the Sami depend on the reindeer – sometimes there is not enough food and the people must feed them with expensive pellets.
To me, it seemed that the reindeer and the people had evolved to live in perfect harmony with each other.
I learned all this at Nutti Sami Siida, near Kiruna, above the Arctic Circle in Northern Sweden. First we met the reindeer:
Then we were ushered into a tent where smoked reindeer souvas were being cooked over an open fire.
The tables were beautifully set with lingonberry jam, lingonberry juice and flatbread.
The idea was to eat the smoked reindeer with some bread and a dollop of lingonberry jam. The moment of truth arrived. I still didn’t know whether I would try the reindeer or not. But already having established that I had no ethical objection to it, I felt it was something I should do, out of respect to our hosts to whom the reindeer mean everything. I only had a little bit, and it was fairly slathered with lingonberry jam, but it did taste good.
Afterwards we had Sami coffee, brewed on the fire:
And cloudberries with cream, in traditional Sami cups: