Vanessa Chiasson is a wimpy traveller with a weak stomach but that hasn't stopped her from sailing to the Aran Islands, running a marathon in Paris, and working on Malawian fish farms. She blogs about affordable travel and culinary adventures at TurnipseedTravel.com and her freelance work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, USA Today, FlightNetwork.com, Plum Deluxe, and The Establishment. Follow her on Twitter @Turnipseeds.
Eva Gunnare's voice was clear and sweet. As she sang, the lyrics of the folk song swirled around her reindeer smoking hut, twirling with the fire. As I cuddled into the soft, fur-covered floor, steaming mugs of Labrador tea were shared, and Eva told -- and sang -- her story.
Her blade moved swiftly as she spoke, slicing off slivers of dried reindeer meat that she had prepared herself. Like me, Eva was a visitor to Sweden's Arctic Circle -- but she never left. She was a Stockholm girl before she fell in love with a Sami reindeer herder and moved to her snug home in Jokkmokk, Sweden. And as the mother of a Sami son, Eva was eager to recognize and preserve her child's heritage.
The Sami people are commonly known to English speakers as 'Lapps' or 'Laplanders', but some consider these terms derogatory. The Sami inhabit Sápmi, a region comprised of the northernmost territories of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and European Russia.
A cornerstone their culture is hospitality. And though Eva had no way of knowing it, her interpretation of Sami warmth was exactly what I needed.
The recent death of my father made me ache for home and also pull away from it. I wanted to see the furthest corners of the world, all while struggling to cope with a touch of homesickness. To be invited into a private Sami home is considered the most intimate gesture of welcome, and I was a grateful recipient. As I burrowed amongst the cozy furs and brooded over a third mug of the delicious tea, I felt I was sorely close to embodying the cliche of traveling the world to find oneself.
Eva Gunnare pours tea. Photo: Vanessa Chiasson.
I came into her home through her company, Essense of Lapland, which offers "Flavor Shows". Part home visit, part cooking class, and part Sami cultural seminar, Eva's Flavor Show had me sharing in song, feasting on pine bark bread with juniper butter, and wrestling with my emotions.
Eva's menu is exquisite. A luxurious emerald green nettle soup flirted with saltiness and a light, feathery salad of flowers and wild greens balanced a piquant smoked trout. I couldn't get enough of the homemade crunchy herb breadsticks. A dessert of classic vanilla ice cream paired with the Arctic's beloved cloudberry was the ultimate experience in creamy comfort food. A steady stream of homemade tangy drinks, not unlike infused lemonades, were made from local herbs and plants and were the ideal summer refreshment. Every dish was an absolute delight, but it was the humble, buttery, pan-fried bread that transported me home.
Homemade flatbread sits wrapped in a grey tea towel. Photo: Vanessa Chiasson
I grew up helping my mother, grandmothers, and aunts make bread. It was a process, a taste, and a smell I knew so well. And while it had been years since I had exerted myself to make a loaf, I knew the motions like the back of my hand.
And as I instinctively kneaded, shaped, and rolled the dough to make gáhkku, the traditional Sami bread, I couldn't help but draw the parallels between the soothing process of making bread and the ritual of breaking it with others. I always regarded the preparation of dough as a somewhat solo activity, but in Eva's home fellowship was present at every step. It took intricate teamwork to master the motion of flipping the flattened gáhkku into the pan, and then back out again before it burned and for once there was no such thing as too many cooks in the kitchen.
Vanilla ice cream and cloudberries. Photo: Vanessa Chiasson
After stuffing me with some more cloudberries -- they really are irresistible -- our meal concluded with one final course. Coffee and cheese is commonplace enough, but in Swedish Lapland, Sami tradition dictates a most special way of serving and eating it. Small cubes of the cheese, known as kaffeost or "coffee cheese", were passed around and we were instructed to plop them into our coffee. My eyebrows furrowed. Why waste perfectly good cheese? Or coffee, for that matter? But Eva was insistent.
The story goes that the people of Jokkmokk and the surrounding area consume so much coffee that they are at risk of sodium deficiency, as the local spring water is pure and consequently free of minerals. The kaffeost, which takes on the flavor of a mocha cream cheese with a squeaky consistency, is eaten after you drain your cup. It provides the necessary sodium and is a hearty, welcome addition for a resting party of reindeer herders.
Kaffeost has a taste and texture best described as curious. I'm not sure if I would actively seek it out to try again, but I'm certainly glad I did experience it at Eva's. It was the perfect ending to my 'home away from home' experience -- familiar, but not overly so.
Kaffeost cheese in coffee. Photo: Vanessa Chiasson
Before the evening concluded, Eva offered one more treat. A short drive, followed by an uphill trek, revealed an extraordinary scenic vista where she shared a final song. I didn't understand the words, but the nostalgia in her tone was unmistakable. The beauty of Eva's voice and the countryside were in perfect harmony. It was as if I was compelled to let go of all that was pressing on my shoulders as not to upset the balance. With a full stomach and light heart, the weight of a thousand worries was suddenly gone.
Me! Photo: Vanessa Chiasson