The Culinary Traditions of Mainland Europe’s Only Indigenous People

The Culinary Traditions of Mainland Europe’s Only Indigenous People

The road into Huuva Hideaway narrows the closer you get to Liehittäjä—a village just south of the Arctic Circle populated almost exclusively by 22 relatives of the Huuva family. Liehittäjä is deep into Sápmi country—the cultural home of what many consider to be mainland Europe’s only indigenous people, the Sámi. Tragically, the narrative of modern Sámi history mirrors that of other indigenous peoples in the Americas and Oceania.

Although never the victims of a physical genocide, many Sámi do consider themselves the victims of a cultural genocide perpetrated by the nation states they suddenly found their homes in—namely Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Similar to indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada, Sámi were forcibly sent to boarding schools and discouraged from speaking their language or practicing their religion. Racial scientists would force Sámi children to undress for photographs and measure different parts of their body for “research.” Historically nomadic, many Sámi were also forced to quit reindeer herding and live in permanent settlements.

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Today, there’s a resurging interest in traditional Sámi culture led by the descendants of those who were forced to bury their roots and heritage. They’re people like Henry Huuva, the son of a Sámi man whose lineage in the region stretches back generations, and his children who are rekindling their connection to their roots in their own way. There’s Erica, the silversmith herding reindeer with her husband in the northern mountains as her Sámi ancestors would have, Christian and Ramona, who’ve both studied the Sámi language in university, and the youngest, Maja, who recently completed schooling in a Sámi handicrafts program in Jokkmokk three hours west. (You speak in time, not distances here.)

Although the Huuva family could very easily keep to themselves in their remote corner of Sápmi, they’ve instead decided to open their doors and welcome travelers in to learn more about their culture—above all, Sámi cuisine.

Imagine sipping on a refreshing cocktail made of ingredients pulled right from the surrounding forest, which doubles as a pantry. Flames burst from the nearby grill as the suovas (smoked reindeer meat) hit the rack. All the while, the husband and wife duo of Henry and Pia Huuva are telling stories, sharing their home and food with visitors like me. Tucked deep into the pine and spruce forests of Sápmi, it’s easy to get swept up in the fairytale ambiance of their aptly named Huuva Hideaway.

The husband and wife duo first launched Huuva Hideaway in 2010 with the goal of sharing Sámi hospitality, culture, food, and storytelling. Following the pandemic, they came back with “Huuva Hideaway 2.1” to welcome guests from Dubai to India into one of their two guest homes.

The property includes a space where they host their outdoor dinners: here’s a lavvu, a Sámi tipi or tent traditionally made of reindeer hides and wooden poles similar in design to their Native American cousins, and a long picnic table next to a modest, rustic pavilion with a grill. At the head of it all, where the grass grows into a forest mixed with pines, spruces, and birch, is a small bar with a “Huuva Hideaway” sign hanging above.

Henry heads straight for the grill while Pia collects cloudberries and prepares mocktails inspired by their natural surroundings. Sápmi doesn’t have the most fertile soil in the world , but blueberries and cloudberries are plentiful and ready to pick during long summer days.

Meat, specifically reindeer and moose, is a cornerstone of Sámi cuisine. Pia says she likes to ask guests how many freezers they have at home (she has 9). Per, Henry’s cousin who’s joined us, chimes in. “I have 11.”

Slaughter takes place in the fall before the biting temperatures and dark days of winter sweep across the region. Freezers keep the meat, root vegetables, and fruit fresh until the cycle repeats itself the following year.

“The most important thing about Sámi food culture is to take care of everything,” says Henry, as he chops a slab of raw reindeer meat into long strips. “Whether you’re eating fish, meat, or vegetables, you cannot waste anything.”

Henry is making suovas, aka smoked reindeer meat, that he’ll place in a skillet with butter and onions. I ask Henry and Per, a cookbook author himself, if there are any tricks to the dish.

“You take the meat, you salt it, and then you hang it outside in the tipi and smoke it,” says Henry. “Put the wood on the stove and smoke it a little bit, so you get that flavor right in the meat. It takes maybe four days to smoke. You can’t rush it.” No spices are added and for Per, even the onions aren’t essential.

“You don’t want to take away from the flavor of the meat,” he says.

That simplicity stretches through other dishes, like gúrpi (a cured mixture of leftover reindeer meat), and the blood pancakes Henry playfulls calls “bloodlinies” (pronounced like a mishmash of “blood” and “blini”). These can be, and have traditionally been, eaten on their own, but Pia hands out some freshly picked berries to go with the gúrpi and dresses the blood pancakes with red onion, red cabbage, lingonberry, and crème fraiche. But Per, indifferent to the seemingly obligatory fusion of modern Western cuisine, doesn’t need the additional accouterments.

“The meat is very good,” he says, his gaze honed in on the dish. “It doesn’t need anything else.”

Twenty-year-old Maja Huuva usually joins for the festivities when she’s in town, dressed in traditional Sámi clothing with bright red trim on a solid, navy blue coat. She shares her cultural knowledge with guests and some of the Sámi clothing and accessories she’s made, like her reindeer shoes or leather bag.

Currently, she spends her time between Liehittäjä and Jokkmokk—a Sámi cultural hub where she currently works. Unlike her father, whose parents encouraged him not to mention his Sámi identity with strangers, Maja doesn’t remember a specific moment in which she learned of her heritage.

“It’s just always been there,” she says. “It’s never been new.”

Good food has also been a constant in Maja’s life, to the point where she now considers herself a picky eater when she’s away from home. The aforementioned suovas and arctic char are what she looks forward to most.

“I’m a bit spoiled because I have my dad who makes really good food,” she says. “He’s my biggest inspiration in food.”

It’s a theme I notice among the children, some of whom are even vegetarians—unless, of course, they’re eating their father’s cooking. There’s no ambiguity behind the meat when it’s coming from Henry. Nothing is packaged or shipped with a colorful collection of labels promising that the product is “bio” or “organic.” You don’t need to be as concerned with the well being of the workers behind the meal because Henry is your reindeer herder, your moose hunter, and your butcher—and he’s pretty damn happy about it.

Unlike most 20 year olds, Maja seems to have her future pretty well planned out. She’d like to stay in or near her hometown—definitely within Sápmi—and continue to learn more about her cultural heritage to pass on to her future children.

“I want the knowledge to stay,” she says. “Because if I don’t learn, then the knowledge can’t move on to the next generation.”

Have you tried Sámi cuisine? Let us know in the comments!

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