Being close to nature is an essential part of the Finnish identity. Unsurprisingly, in a country ruled by endless forests and placid lakes, natural flavours are abundant and ingredients provided by nature are deeply ingrained in the Finnish cuisine, have found their ways into natural cosmetics and, to a degree, even into sauna culture. Especially Finnish food is connected to ingredients such as berries and herbs. But what is a real, a very Finnish flavour? A Finnflavour, so to speak?
The flavour that people usually associate with Finland is probably that of the wild blueberry (bilberry), followed by other berries and maybe even some herbs. However, Finns have another all-time favourite that is much less known but, we argue, the most Finnish one of them all: it’s the birch leaf (in Finnish koivunlehti), a real gem that remains somewhat a secret outside the country’s borders.
Birch leaves have a very particular taste and smell. If you ever had the chance, you will never forget their unique flavour. In Finland, birch leaves are used to make tea, young leaves are common, tasty ingredients for salads and you can even find them in snack bars and other products. Cosmetics also make plenty of use of birch leaves. Soap, shampoo and other hygiene products such as herbal baths for the feet and body are common items that contain the leaves. What might seem like a little obsession is explained and fully justified by the special twist they give to them.
There is more, though. Birch leaves play a role in traditional sauna culture in Finland (in Russia as well). Branches with birch leaves are used by sauna goers to gently slap their skin with to improve blood circulation (Finns know this as vasta or vihta). Using them makes a sauna visit truly Finnish and perfect.
And while we are talking about birches: the tree has other uses as well. Birch sugar (aka xylitol) is harvested from the tree, birch sap (or birch water) is a popular drink and ingredient in Finland and elsewhere and the bark is used in all sorts of arts and handicrafts (even shoes are made from the bark). Traditionally, birch wood is also an important firewood. To top it off, the silver birch (Betula pendula) is Finland’s national tree.
As you can see, Finns and birches have a long and intimate relationship. That’s why we say: the birch is the most Finnish flavour (and thing) there is.
Elina & Tim
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