If there is one thing even I can claim to be universally true about the Finns, it’s this: Sauna is an essential part of life. On a recent trip through Finland, I’m told this several times a day, seemingly by everyone I meet — whether it’s tour guides or bartenders — and each time I’m told it, there’s a new fascinating detail. Here’s one: The sauna used to be a birthing room. Here’s another: It was also a place where people were given their last rites. Yes, this means you could come into this world and leave it in a smoldering box of birch.
But wait, there’s more: The sauna is also where important business deals take place — fully naked, of course. There’s even a gruesome wedding ritual where the bride must sauna sitting on stinging nettle to simulate the pain of giving birth. That’s not done anymore (or so I’m told).
If you’ve ever spent time in a sauna in the U.S., it’s not the same. Chances are it was at a gym, and it was an electric sauna, and it was somewhat hot, but not really hot. That’s not the case in Finland. The Finns let the saunas get so hot that during the finals of the World Championships of Sauna (a very real thing), both contestants collapsed. One died of a heart attack, and the winner was immediately hospitalized for severe burns.
And so, while spending time in a box surrounded by sweaty folks, slugging Finnish Long Drink, and jumping into the freezing Baltic to shock your system might not be at the top of (or even on) your travel bucket list, here’s something that should be: Trying a unique charcuterie called saunapalvikinkku, which is otherwise known as sauna ham.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Sauna ham is not cooked among sweaty sauna patrons — although, is it bad that part of me wishes it was? And while the Finns do sometimes cook sausages in the wood ovens of their saunas to enjoy immediately after a relaxing session, the sauna ham gets a different treatment.
According to Paula Tamminen, owner of Tammien, a meat purveyor in Finland, all of the sauna ham is cooked in an old-fashioned smoke sauna. The sauna is heated with wood for several hours, and steam is injected as well, so it’s a much smokier experience than a typical sauna. According to Tamminen, “The wall surfaces of the smoke sauna are all blackened with soot and an atmospheric scent floats in the sauna’s steam.”
Tamminen and her team carefully select large hams, salt them, and then net them into the desired shape. From there, they place a bunch of them “in meat wagons,” and the wagons are taken to the smoke sauna. Tamminen says they use large alder logs and burn them for several hours, and smoke is led to the sauna using flues. It takes 10 hours before the hams are fully cooked, and then they have to cool before being sliced into cold cuts.
Cold cuts are the form in which I tried sauna ham for the first time, unfortunately not while in a sauna, but instead inside Helsinki’s famous Hakaniemi market hall. Rolled up and served to me with a toothpick on a paper plate (next to some reindeer meat), the sauna ham had a rich black rind, and the smokey flavor was prominent. It tasted as if it had just spent the past week in the airport smoking lounge or, better yet, on a mezcal-induced bender. But the fat cut through the smoke so well, I wanted to stand in front of the butcher and eat it piece by piece until the whole ham was gone. I certainly would’ve taken a whole ham with me if customs allowed it.
It was delicious, and while it may not have been the best ham I’ve had, I can definitively say that it is the only meat product I’ve eaten that has gotten a full spa treatment. And that has to count for something, right?
Source: Food and Wine