Fieldwork Journey Part 2: Åland (Where the hell is that?)

After Helsinki, I found myself sailing to a little oasis called Åland.

Where and what is Åland?

If you’re asking yourself this, it’s okay. I’ve been living in Scandinavia for the better part of the past three years and I didn’t know this myself until just a few months ago when I met some people from the area at a New Nordic Food workshop.

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Åland is an archipelago that lies between Finland and Sweden. The islands are technically a part of Finland, but the main language spoken there is Swedish (as most people on the West Coast of Finland also speak Swedish as a native language), and they also have their own autonomous government. It may seem quite isolated on the map, but due to the largely popular (and generally inexpensive) Baltic cruise ships that pass by the islands daily on their way to and from Finland and Sweden, or to Estonia on the other side of the Baltic, they are actually quite accessible. They also have a local ferry system that runs between the various islands in the archipelag which is free for individuals and costs a small fee if you take your vehicle or bike. Biking is quite a popular way to get around the islands – bike paths run throughout the main city, Mariehamn, and during the summer the Visit Åland website boasts of a bicycle ferry that create a connected network of paths that allow you to bike around the islands without taking the same route back. While I was in Mariehamn, there were many people biking through the city, even with quite a small population and it being the chilly start of spring.

Åland is a popular vacation destination for other Nordic and Baltic residents in the summer months. Mainly known for its breathtaking natural landscape, most people stay out in the forests or near the sea, hiking or biking or sailing around.

The islands are also becoming increasingly recognized as as an agricultural (and culinary) hub. For a community of only roughly 28,000 people, Åland produces 90% of the asparagus, 60% of the pears, 50% of the apples, and 30% of all of the onions sold in Finland. Because of the good growing habits on the island, there has been a large push for a growth in small-scale production. As they are a small island, these small producers have an advantage in exporting their products around the Nordic with an ‘Åland’ label that can be easily recognized and easily traced back to them. Small producers have the advantage of having a strong support network of community members within Åland, and have the advantage of sitting in between both Finland and Sweden, and thus are able to export to both Swedish and Finnish markets.

Although I was only in Mariehamn for two days, I was able to talk to a few key people about local food development in Åland, including Lena Brenner and Harriet Strandvik, who were both partners in the most recent New Nordic Food project run by the Nordic Council of Ministers; well-known local chef Michael Björklund; and local bartender/budding small-scale producer Joel Lindholm. 

I had met Lena and Joel at the New Nordic Food workshop I had attended in February. Both of them made the point that the fact that Åland is even recognised as their own country within the Nordic Council’s New Nordic Food group, and that there were two representatives from Åland at the relatively small workshop of about 50 or 60 people (even though they only have a population of 28,000 people as compared to the millions in the rest of the Nordic countries), speaks to how important the topic of food is for Åland.

Lena and Harriet told me about their experiences of being involved in developing plans for local food projects, and talked about the importance of connecting all areas of the food chain, such as chefs, industry, producers, and educators. When people are connected to each other, they are able to learn from exchanging their different perspectives and experiences. 

Michael and Joel talked to me about the benefits of being located in Åland. You have the advantage of being close to nature and the support of a tight interconnected community, but you also have quite easy access to large cities like Stockholm in Sweden, or Turku and Helsinki in Finland – easier than if you lived in Northern Sweden or Finland. Joel grew up in the latter area, on the Northern coast of Finland, but moved to Åland and decided to stay because of these various advantages.

Michael was born in Åland, but spent his earlier years as a chef travelling around the Nordic region developing his trade before moving back to the islands 10 years ago. In the time before he settled back in Åland, however, he was able to make a name for himself by winning chef of the year in both Finland and Sweden, and placing fifth in the prestigious Bocuse D’Or in 2000. Since coming back to Åland, he has been fully dedicated to working with Nordic products and developing the food culture in Åland. His restaurant Smakbyn is found 25 minutes outside the main town, Mariehamn, overlooking a medieval Swedish castle in the countryside. It focusses on using local ingredients, and is also attached to a distillery that produces spirits made from fruits found around Åland. He hopes to expand Smakbyn to include a hotel, a theatre, and a school, where young chefs can spend a year learning how to cook with the local Nordic produce around them. He also hopes to develop Smakbyn into a place where you can go and see the products you are eating as they are developed, so when you go to have a meal there, you can also visit the butchers, the dairy, and the farm. When you show people how things are produced, Michael explains, it benefits the local producers. For example, when people see how ham is produced at the butchers, if they go to Sweden and see a ham in the store with an Åland label, they will associate it with the ham they saw being produced and are much more likley to purchase it.

Michael Björklund's cookbook: 'My Nordic Food'

Michael Björklund’s cookbook: ‘My Nordic Food’

Everyone I talked to emphasized the importance of local small-scale production and it’s development within Åland, and the challenges they face, such as dealing with the difficulty of dealing with bureacracy and complications of opening a small business. Dealing with all the papers that need to be filled out and getting all plans approved is sometimes the hardest part of getting into local production, and there is a fear that potential small-producers may lose interest or give up because of these complicated processes. Because of this, there are a lot of ideas such as creating co-ops and support systems to handle these challenges that are floating around.

‘Welcome all children’

There was also a lot of talk about the importance of children. Harriet, who was the project leader for the ‘Children, Food and Health’ division of the New Nordic Food group, invited me to visit a ‘kids only’ dinner she was hosting at one of the restaurants in town that evening. A number of young children, roughly around the age of ten (I’m guessing here) were invited to eat a meal at the restaurant with their peers, with no parents allowed (I was allowed to visit, since I don’t actually have kids, which basically makes me a kid myself – they’re basically all as tall as me by now, anyways). They were served a three course dinner, and introduced to the chef and the producer of the lamb they had for their main dish.

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Åland’s ‘kid’s only’ dinner

This was the second kids only event they had hosted, and it seemed to be a success. Harriet told me that she hopes they will be able to turn it into a regular event, in an effort to get kids excited and interested about trying new foods, eating out, talking to producers, and knowing where things come from without their parents supervision.

Turnip soup with bacon

I got a taste of the Kids Only appetizer: Turnip soup with bacon. My favourite quote of the night: “I don’t like bacon, but this is pretty good I guess.”

I think Åland can work as a great example of how small communities can work as support systems for developing local sustainable agricultural production and an interconnected food culture. I’m so happy I was able to discover this little thriving area and am so excited to follow their progress. And even though I only got to spend a night in Mariehamn, I definitely hope I’ll be able to come back to explore all that Åland has to offer in the future.

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