Arctic Food Lab is a trademark of Oulu2026 – European Capital of Culture that aims to promote northern gastronomy focussed on local food. Erika Benke has met two food industry professionals in Oulu to hear their thoughts on how Arctic Food Lab intends to take the concept of wild and locally-grown food based cuisine to the next level.
“We have totally unique ingredients here in Oulu. I hope that in five years’ time, we will be the proudest Finns of our local ingredients.”
Chef Jussi Kurkela starts our conversation with a bold statement, fit for someone whose fine-dining venue Ostroferia has made real waves in Oulu’s restaurant scene. He’s a soft-spoken man, clearly articulating his mission.
“I make food from local ingredients. I carry the feeling that I get when picking up a mushroom straight to the table. I want the customer to feel the same emotion when eating that mushroom. That’s the only way to make food.”
Sinikka Eskola has been running Sokeri-Jussin Kievari, Oulu’s much-loved traditional Finnish restaurant in Pikisaari, for over twenty years. A cheerful, seemingly inexhaustible woman, Sinikka is bursting with passion when talking about local ingredients.
“Strawberries, mushrooms, fish, new potatoes, reindeer meat… oh my God! It’s the best in the world.
Isn’t is amazing that we live so far north, just below the Arctic Circle, but still this is the best place in the world for wild berries and growing these vegetables?”
Changing attitudes to local food
Most people agree that local food in Oulu is full of flavour. But many locals view it as nothing special – just part of ordinary life in the north. Arctic Food Lab aims to change that notion by stirring emotions and making people realise that their local food is unique – and it’s something to boast about.
“It’s not just that it’s healthy and delicious. Local food is good for the environment. And not having to transport it from long distances also means that everything is fresh,” adds Sinikka to the long list of benefits.
A competitive advantage
Arctic Food Lab promotes the idea that local food can be a competitive advantage to players in the food industry.
Farmers, restaurants and supermarkets can all benefit from prioritising local food in their offerings, thereby increasing awareness about forest and locally-grown and raised food among tourists and locals alike.
“This is so good for everybody. We need to get this loud and clear,” says Jussi Kurkela.
“We need to make sure that there’s local food on everybody’s table: at home and in restaurants. Supermarkets should set up an aisle or a corner dedicated to local food,” suggests Sinikka Eskola.
Get addicted to foraging
Arctic Food Lab wants both tourists and locals to learn more about Oulu’s gastronomic heritage.
“To make that happen, how about organising tours in the forest?” asks Jussi Kurkela.
“We have to get everybody to start picking berries and mushrooms. Many people are afraid of picking mushrooms because some are poisonous, and they don’t bother to learn which ones are edible. We should teach them about mushrooms.”
Jussi is a keen mushroom picker but he points out that at the time of our interview, we’re in the middle of the cloudberry season. To prove the point, in half an hour he effortlessly fills a small box with the juicy orange fruit.
“It’s so easy to learn to appreciate local food. All you have to do is pick enough cloudberries to make a cake for your family. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be hooked. Next year when the cloudberry season starts, you’ll feel an irresistible urge to go and pick them and make that cloudberry cake again.”
If you’ve been inspired to follow Jussi’s advice, please get in touch with us and tell us about your experience. We’d love to hear from you: has a box of berries you’ve collected made you addicted to foraging?
Video and article by Erika Benke