In Finland, sauna is not just an activity; it’s an integral part of life. During a recent journey through this Nordic country, I discovered that sauna culture is deeply ingrained in Finnish society. It’s not something reserved for special occasions; it’s a daily ritual. Locals told me that saunas used to serve multiple purposes, including being birthing rooms and even places where people received their last rites. This dual role meant that individuals could enter and leave this world within the warm embrace of a smoldering birch-scented box.
But the intrigue doesn’t stop there. Saunas in Finland also serve as venues for important business deals, often conducted in the buff. There’s even a historical wedding tradition where brides had to endure sitting on stinging nettles in the sauna, simulating the pain of childbirth (fortunately, this practice has fallen by the wayside). The Finnish sauna experience vastly differs from those commonly found in the U.S. Here, saunas are typically electric, moderately hot, and located in gyms. In contrast, Finnish saunas crank up the heat to the extreme, so much so that during the World Championships of Sauna, finalists collapsed due to the extreme temperatures. One unfortunate contestant suffered a heart attack, while the victor ended up hospitalized with severe burns.
Amidst the sweaty camaraderie and chilling dips in the Baltic Sea, there’s one culinary delight worth exploring: saunapalvikinkku, or sauna ham. Now, don’t let the name mislead you; it’s not cooked amidst sauna patrons. Instead, it receives a unique treatment in an old-fashioned smoke sauna. Large hams are carefully selected, salted, and netted into the desired shape. Then, they’re placed in meat wagons and transported to the smoke sauna. Here, alder logs burn for several hours, infusing the hams with a rich smoky flavor. After ten hours of cooking, they cool down before being sliced into delectable cold cuts.
I had the pleasure of trying sauna ham at Helsinki’s famous Hakaniemi market hall, served as rolled-up cold cuts. With a rich black rind and a prominent smoky flavor, it felt like it had just enjoyed a week in an airport smoking lounge or perhaps embarked on a mezcal-fueled adventure. The interplay of fat and smoke was delightful, leaving me yearning for more. While it might not have been the best ham I’ve ever tasted, it’s undoubtedly the only meat product I’ve encountered that’s received the full spa treatment. That, in itself, makes it a culinary experience worth savoring in Finland.