Squeaky cheese, homemade yo­gurt, and more in the “Fin­nish Tri­an­gle”

I’m in the mid­dle of the area known lo­cally as “the Fin­nish Tri­an­gle,” sam­pling a highly un­usual yo­gurt whose ac­tive cul­ture ar­rived here 100-some years ago on a sun-dried rag.

Ev­ery sur­face in Miriam Ylin­iemi’s bright kitchen is cov­ered with a bowl or plat­ter wear­ing a crin­kled beret of alu­minum foil. The bluish February sun­shine shoots low through the large plate glass win­dow, jump­ing from foil top to foil top and light­ing up her kitchen like a disco.

Even though I’d asked Miriam to just make the kar­jalan

pi­iraka, traditional rye hand pies, she’s cho­sen to over­ride me and in­stead make a feast that charts a day in the life of a Min­nesota Finn, from morn­ing to mid­night snack. There’s a pile of flour-dusted ruis, Fin­nish rye bread; joulu­torttu, flaky cream-rich star-shaped pas­tries with prune jam cen­ters; a towering whipped cream cake topped with a mo­saic of fresh fruit; and in the cen­ter of her stove, a large disk of “squeaky cheese,” fresh curds broiled to a speck­led brown, still warm and weep­ing whey at the edges.

Be­fore I can wedge off my win­ter boots, she peels a soft plas­tic lid from a sky­blue Tup­per­ware con­tainer and hands me the traditional Fin­nish break­fast: a cup of homemade yo­gurt dusted with a flurry of cin­na­mon

Sur­rounded by snow, this wood­fired clay oven is the ves­sel of choice for bak­ing rus­tic rye bread.

sugar. “This is villi. Our yo­gurt. It sets at room tem­per­a­ture.”

The villi has the con­sis­tency of cus­tard but falls from my spoon in a long slith­er­ing cord. Stretchy like mas­tic, it has a dis­arm­ingly gluti­nous qual­ity—a mus­cu­lar­ity to it that sug­gests it might just keep on mov­ing on its own. But that ten­sion-hold breaks in the mouth, where it dis­solves in a sweet pud­dle, its tart­ness soft like back­ground noise.

“What does villi mean in Fin­nish?” I ask, my crush on this yo­gurt pro­gress­ing from flir­ta­tion to full-blown love by the third spoon­ful.

“Wild,” Miriam says. And it is. The sour­dough of yo­gurts, this cul­ture needs no cod­dling or ex­tra heat to ac­ti­vate. Stirred into milk, it gels on its own. “Miriam,” her hus­band, Elmer, coaxes from his easy chair in the nearby liv­ing room, “tell her the story!” But Miriam, a highly ar­tic­u­late woman who has nearly sin­gle-hand­edly kept Fin­nish food tra­di­tions alive for the area youth, who has trans­lated three aca­demic books from Fin­nish into English, waves him off with a tsk-tsk flip of her man­i­cured sil­ver hair. Turn­ing her at­ten­tion back to spoon­ing creamy ovals of rice pud­ding onto thin coaster-size cir­cles of rye dough, she quickly lines up rows of ruf­fled rye pies—ma­chine-per­fect kar­jalan pi­iraka. She can’t talk while she’s mak­ing them, I get it. Her knuck­les flash, her fin­ger­tips pinch the dough into even pleats, her eyes rarely lift off the coun­ter­top hori­zon. She has a good hand, I think. Her fin­gers know the dif­fer­ence be­tween right and wrong, good enough and great.

So Elmer, the re­tired pas­tor of the Apos­tolic Lutheran church in Wolf Lake, and a vivid sto­ry­teller, tells me in­stead.

“When our rel­a­tives first moved here from Fin­land at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, they found that af­ter a while, their villi cul­ture weak­ened, so they wrote to their rel­a­tives back home. The women there soaked clean rags in villi—”

“Not rags,” Miriam in­ter­jects. “Prob­a­bly some­thing hand­wo­ven. Weav­ing is very im­por­tant to Fin­nish cul­ture.”

“Right, wo­ven cloths. They soaked them in villi, dried them in the sun un­til they were stiff, and then mailed them to Wolf Lake.” “And you’ve kept it go­ing ever since?” “Yes, of course,” Elmer says, drop­ping a wob­bly cube of the now-cool squeaky cheese into his hot cof­fee, the tiny Fin­nish cup al­most dis­ap­pear­ing in­side his large hand.

“This is traditional?” I ask, drop­ping a cube into my own cup. A shim­mery con­stel­la­tion of fat dro­plets rises to the sur­face. I sip quickly and tip the warm cheese into my mouth. Not as weird as it sounds, the cof­fee tastes tof­fee-tinged but not sweet, a bit like Bul­let­proof cof­fee stud­ded with cubes of soft gum—squeaky, milk-fla­vored gum.

“Sure, when you’re hav­ing a cof­fee break, you want to warm up the cheese to make it squeak again, so you drop it in the cof­fee,” she says.

We sit down at the ta­ble for­mally set with Fin­nish table­ware, de­signs not only in­spired by win­ter but seem­ingly con­structed from its raw ma­te­ri­als: glass­ware molded from ici­cles; blue glass can­dle­hold­ers the color of a sky slink­ing into twi­light; a table­cloth wo­ven in al­ter­nat­ing bands of white and tan, fresh snow and old snow. Finns know that the beauty of the North lives in its con­tra­dic­tory ex­tremes: sear­ing sun­light, in­su­lat­ing snow­banks against the house, air so cold it burns your cheeks.

Miriam pulls a tray of kar­jalan pi­iraka from the oven, brush­ing the browned frilled tops with a fi­nal glaze of melted but­ter. I take one and smear a clod of but­ter mashed with hard-boiled eggs into the gash of hot steam­ing rice, as in­structed, which melts in­stantly into a silky yel­low pud­dle. At the bite, the crisp rye pas­try crum­bles, and I think it’s just about the odd­est, most hard-to-cat­e­go­rize, weirdly de­li­cious thing I’ve ever eaten. Both fem­i­nine and earthy, the rye pies look like a fancy pas­try a child might whip up out of her mother’s kitchen scraps for her dolls at teatime, and they taste just as oth­er­worldly per­fect.

We con­clude the break­fast feast with slices of del­i­cate sponge cake sopped with fresh fruit and juice and held to­gether with an inch-thick grout of whipped cream. My belly dares me to fin­ish it, and I do, pick­ing up ev­ery light, stat­icky crumb on the plate with my fin­ger­tips. I get the sense that no oc­ca­sion around here goes down with­out cake.

Be­fore I go, she fills a clean pill jar with villi, what she calls “the seed.” With this pre­cious cul­ture in hand—my sorely needed pre­scrip­tion—i feel as though I’ve been given a glimpse into the greater sub­cul­ture of the Wolf Lake Finns.

My hus­band, Aaron, and I live about 20 miles from here. I’m re­minded of a mo­ment a few years back while ski­ing on our trails when we passed over a cu­ri­ous clus­ter of snow mounds be­fore real­iz­ing that we had skied right into a wolf pack’s home den, all of whose mem­bers were likely nap­ping peace­fully in their snow caves. Dis­cov­er­ing this un­der­ground cui­sine, hid­den in plain sight, is just as thrilling. I’ve al­ways con­sid­ered this tightly knit and self-sus­tain­ing com­mu­nity of hard­work­ing peo­ple to be pro­tec­tive of their val­ues, their faith, and their fam­i­lies, but now that I’ve tasted their food I won­der if my as­sump­tion was wrong: Maybe they didn’t move here to keep their cul­ture in­tact and un­spoiled. Maybe they moved here to keep it wild.


Three towns—se­beka, Me­nahga, and New York Mills—form the points of the Fin­nish Tri­an­gle, which was home­steaded al­most ex­clu­sively by Finns at the turn of the 19th cen­tury. The jokesy Fin­nish cul­ture present in the towns

of Me­nahga and Se­beka is the one I’m fa­mil­iar with: the St. Urho’s Day pa­rade that celebrates the made-up saint who drove the grasshop­pers from Fin­land, the Wife Carry Com­pe­ti­tion (the vic­tor wins his wife’s weight in beer), and the fa­mous Chang­ing of the Guard, a line of men cer­e­mo­ni­ally peel­ing off the one-piece long un­der­wear they’ve worn all win­ter long. They call them­selves “Fin­lan­ders,” and they’re row­dier than the Apos­tolics, more apt to hang out at the Me­nahga Muni (the mu­nic­i­pal bar). But the more traditional cul­tural heart of the Fin­nish com­mu­nity re­sides among the dairy farms of Wolf Lake Town­ship. My own Two In­lets area, just two town­ships over, feels a world away. The hills are higher here, the roads windier, the win­ter light hot­ter and more un­real.

Many of the area’s dairy farms are certified or­ganic—eight at last count. At Sal­men farm, 10 miles from Miriam’s house, the world might be frozen, the noon­day tem­per­a­ture hov­er­ing at 20 below zero, but the milk in the barn still flows.

As a Min­nesotan with­out a drop of Scan­di­na­vian her­itage in­side her, I re­al­ize that my dairy senses need some tun­ing—a feel­ing that in­creases when I ar­rive in Tyyni Sal­men’s kitchen. I can tell that I don’t see milk the way that Tyyni sees milk. Like the vet­eran skier she is, she scopes out the bucket of fresh milk as she does the lat­est snow­fall; she looks be­yond the white­ness to see con­di­tions. The five-gal­lon bucket full of milk fresh from the bulk tank is cry­ing out to be made into cheese.

As Miriam did, Tyyni raises my sim­ple re­quest for squeaky cheese to the third power and also makes the star-shaped prune pas­tries, plus a pot of smooth yel­low pea soup, and of course brings out a fresh jar of villi. Hers, made from un­pas­teur­ized milk, is clot­ted heav­ily at the top, due to the higher but­ter­fat con­tent of the farm’s or­ganic milk, 4.2 per­cent but­ter­fat as op­posed to the av­er­age con­ven­tional 3.6. The fla­vor is kalei­do­scopic in com­par­i­son to store-bought milk, with a bit of barn floor on the nose. Earthier, yes, but lustier too. As I ex­pe­ri­enced walk­ing past the milk­ing stalls filled with sweet, un­blink­ing cows, the aroma ini­tially shocks but quickly fades.

Tyyni, a small woman with a girl­ish voice and a gray-blonde bob, stands at the stove in a knit skirt and wool knee socks. As we talk about Christ­mas tra­di­tions, she tells me that she’s the proud grand­mother of 40, and I try to con­ceal my shock. Her face is as un­lined as a teenager’s.

“For Christ­mas, what do you make for the main meat?” I ask.

“Usu­ally more than one ham!” she replies, while crack­ing open a two-gal­lon plas­tic bucket to re­veal a slow wave of creamy milk. “And many pans of squeaky cheese.” She sets a wire hanger bent into a star shape on top of her elec­tric burner to dif­fuse the heat, pours the milk into a large well-worn pot, and sea­sons it with a big pinch of salt and a smaller pinch of sugar. I rec­og­nize this as the typ­i­cal Scan­di­na­vian re­straint with dairy. Sim­i­lar to the way my Nor­we­gian-amer­i­can mother-in-law sweet­ens her whipped cream—with just a wink from the sugar—tyyni keeps her cheese pure and chaste.

As the milk heats, I ad­mire her shiny painted wood floors, her pot­ted plants ram­bling ev­ery­where, her wide-slat­ted din­ing-room ta­ble, bleached and sanded down to raw smooth wood in the Fin­nish way. As at Miriam’s, the win­ter light beams like a stage light through the place.

Tynni scoops out the cheese curds into a rectangular cheese­cloth-lined wire sieve, pushes on the curds with a back­handed la­dle to re­move the stand­ing whey, and then flops the con­tents ex­pertly into a bak­ing pan and pops it un­der the broiler. We stand at the oven door and watch it friz­zle un­der the heat, the brown spots spread­ing across the sur­face of the cheese. As we watch, mem­bers of Tyyni’s fam­ily stream into the house and la­dle gold­en­rod-col­ored soup into bowls. Four cousins who seem to be all the same age pile into one liv­ing-room chair to wait for the cheese. When it’s done, she cuts it into cubes and the kids make swift work of it, swab­bing the cheese through a saucer of her homemade rasp­berry jam. The fresh curds, sweet and salty, squeak in my teeth.

“You have time for a sauna?” Tyyni asks, point­ing to the white­washed build­ing across the drive­way, its chim­ney puff­ing steam. Built in the 1930s, the sauna has the traditional two rooms: a front chang­ing room, lit by a kerosene lamp, and a dark back room lit by a cur­tained win­dow and a rag­ing wood­stove fire. Usu­ally, men and women sauna sep­a­rately, in the nude. To­day, the lit­tle boys vol­un­teer, in swim trunks for my ben­e­fit, and scam­per in. Tyyni drops grape­fruits into the snow to chill and says, “So re­fresh­ing af­ter a sauna.”

Af­ter about 10 min­utes, the boys, their skin as


pink as boiled crab shells, blow out of the sauna door and hit the snow, rolling down the hill like a bunch of bear cubs. Shak­ing off snow, they each take a wedge of cut grape­fruit and go back in.

I laugh, and Tyyni says, “You think that’s funny, the teenage boys down the road are re­ally crazy. They drive their snow­mo­biles af­ter their saunas to cool off, and one night they came all the way to our drive­way—two miles away!” “They were rid­ing naked?” “Of course!” She tucks a plas­tic-wrapped wedge of squeaky cheese into my hand, squints out at the clos­est rolling white hill, gives me a quick hug and says, “I think I still have time to­day for a ski.”

As I leave, I turn back to take a pic­ture with my phone and see that it has turned it­self off be­cause I’ve been stand­ing out so long in the cold.


The third stop on my Wolf Lake Finn tour takes me down an even skin­nier trail, to the house of my friends Bruce and Budd at the end of a for­est road in the south Smoky Hills. Bruce Enge­bret­sen is Swedish-amer­i­can but grew up 20 min­utes west of Wolf Lake amid a num­ber of Fin­nish ladies who schooled him in their do­mes­tic arts. A ded­i­cated handweaver, he and his spouse, Budd Parker, moved here a cou­ple of years ago with their col­lec­tion of an­tique wooden looms, spin­ning wheels, his­tory books, old cook­ing tools, and Budd’s en­vi­able stash of enam­eled Dansk cook­ware. Here in the sum­mer months, in the mid­dle of the woods, they hold weekly weav­ing work­shops that are open to any­one. In his stu­dio, Bruce demon­strates ev­ery­thing from spin­ning flax into linen to Sami belt weav­ing; they make a caul­dron of soup, pull a moun­tain of bread from their out­door wood-fired clay oven, and call potluck for the rest. The evenings of­ten end with Bruce at the pi­ano lead­ing a sin­ga­long of old-timey songs while the crowd passes around a bot­tle of homemade pea-pod wine.

I came here to round out my Wolf Lake ed­u­ca­tion not only be­cause Bruce is a dis­ci­ple of Fin­nish food and weav­ing but be­cause he’s promised to make me

vispipu­uro, whipped cran­berry pud­ding, and to help cook a Fin­nish feast in their clay oven—in the mid­dle of February. He’s in­vited yet an­other cold-hardy Min­nesotan, Amy Ter­vola-hult­berg, a Fin­nish lan­guage and cul­ture ed­u­ca­tor from New York Mills who is ea­ger to make her wood-fired ruis, or traditional Fin­nish sour rye.

She be­gins with a por­ridge of cooked rolled rye, called rye chops, then adds a lump of her bub­bling rye starter and enough flour to make a sponge. Af­ter it rises, she adds just enough flour to make a sticky dough and pats it out onto a heav­ily floured sur­face in two shapes: flat­tened rounds, for sand­wiches, and the more traditional donut shape. The cen­tral hole is es­sen­tial, for these breads were tra­di­tion­ally made all at once, stacked on a dowel, and stored for months.

“Didn’t the bread get hard?” I ask. “How did they eat it?”

“Oh yes, it got hard, as hard as wood, but then they would shave it off in thin slices with a hand­held wood planer, you see,” Bruce says, demon­strat­ing the slide on the coun­ter­top, “and soften it in a bowl with sour milk.”

“Sounds de­li­cious,” I say, and we all laugh. Then Bruce says, “Re­mem­ber, these peo­ple were no strangers to famine. In food, some­times there’s hard­ship, too.”

Amy holds up her hands, furred with sticky dough. “But not to­day,” she says. “We’re go­ing to eat it fresh, when it’s per­fectly soft and chewy.”

Bruce whips the vispipu­uro pud­ding made with for­aged cran­ber­ries. “The wild high­bush cran­ber­ries that grow here taste a lot like the traditional lin­gonber­ries,” he ex­plains. The dark cran­berry juice, thick­ened into a slurry with fa­rina, light­ens as it whips un­til its shiny, pink meringue-like cloud rises up over the rim of the bowl. Across from him, I roll a pork belly that I’ve pre-salted and rubbed with herbs to go into the clay oven. When it’s ten­der, we’ll slice it, fry it un­til crispy, and dress it with black­ened leeks and mush­rooms. This, to­gether with a dish of creamed spinach and a huge pan full of woodroasted cab­bage cooked in horse­rad­ish cream, will give us plenty of fatty, creamy juices to sop up with the bread.

When Budd calls the oven ready, we take turns hus­tling out­side. In­side for more food, out­side to

In snowy north­ern Min­nesota, Miriam Ylin­iemi per­fects herkar­jalan pi­iraka, ruf­fled rye pies with a rice pud­ding fill­ing.

Above: The writer’s skis at her home. Op­po­site page, clock­wise from top left: A ruf­fled kar­jalan pi­iraka rice pud­ding pie (see pg. 64 for recipe); chopped wood is es­sen­tial for both wood-fired ovens and saunas; pick­led mush­rooms and leeks (pg. 65); Fin­nish Min­nesotans em­brace the rich funk of un­pas­teur­ized cow’s milk for their villi yo­gurt.

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