Mince pies and a glass of sherry. Milk and cookies. These are among the snacks and treats that thousands of people will leave out for Santa Claus as he makes his deliveries this Christmas Eve.
But do we really know what Santa likes to eat? And what will Santa and his helpers be having for Christmas dinner? For the answers, we have to embark on a journey to Santa’s home in the winter wonderland of northern Finland.
When he’s not flying across continents with Rudolph and co., Santa Claus lives in the town of Rovaniemi in Lapland. At 66.5 degrees north, just at the edge of the Arctic Circle, it’s a clean and fresh natural environment that yields some of the finest produce in the world. And it’s this natural abundance that’s key to one of the world’s most vibrant and interesting cuisines.
Rovaniemi has no fewer than eight seasons, which help to produce intensely flavoursome ingredients. From June through July, the midnight sun causes the countryside to bloom and the rivers and lakes to thrive with fresh salmon, arctic char, trout and pike. From July to August is the harvest season, when many wild plants, herbs and mushrooms are gathered.
Berries are everywhere, from lingonberry to cranberry, but the most prized of all Lapland’s berries are cloudberries. Also known as baked apple berries, they are the focus of many traditional delicacies, from jams and sauces to alcoholic liqueurs such as Lakkalikööri.
Many locals eat them raw with melted leipäjuusto cheese, cream and sugar. Chef Tero Mäntykangas has lived in Lapland all his life, and is the restaurant operations manager for all Lapland Hotels’ properties from Levi to Luosto.
“In summertime and autumn we collect and store many ingredients for the winter,” he said. “In later fall we hunt moose and rabbits and use them in winter. Then we have also reindeer round-ups in fall.”
Reindeer have been herded by the indigenous Sami people of Lapland since the 19th century. The meat is sliced thinly and sautéed to make the traditional Lappish dish poronkäristys, which is served with chanterelles, potatoes and lingonberry. Little is left to waste, as the bones are boiled to make reindeer bouillon, and the blood is used to make gumppus, a form of black pudding in the shape of sausages or pancakes.
Thankfully, the reindeer used for these dishes are from special herds, so there’s no danger of Santa eating a Rudolph rumpsteak or even a Donner kebab.
“In Finnish Lapland we have the best, cleanest and most natural ingredients,” said Mäntykangas. “We cook Lappish traditional food in the modern way with a ‘twist’. We use reindeer moss with reindeer meat on the same dish, so the story of the portion is an important element of the eating experience. We use also many kinds of Lappish effects, for example ice and smoke.”
When it comes to Santa’s dinner, Mäntykangas would always recommend the traditional Christmas buffet. “Gravlax or salted fishes and white fish roe. In addition, warm dishes, sweet potatoes, carrot casserole, Christmas ham, rosolli (beetroot) salad, Russian salad - and reindeer.”
But there’s only one way to find out what Santa Claus will be eating this Christmas - and that’s to ask the man himself.
We tracked him down to his secret grotto in Rovaniemi, where he spoke to us on his tea break.
“Here in Finland we celebrate Christmas on, 24th Dec,” said Santa. “That is the most festive day of the whole Christmas. On Christmas Eve Santa Claus wants to enjoy only that type of food that tastes, looks and feels good.”
When pressed about the snacks he most enjoyed during his Christmas deliveries, he was diplomatic. “Santa loves global and local specialities and, thanks to all dear friends around the world, he is being offered the chance to enjoy all these delicacies on his Christmas journey,” he said. And his favourite festive food?
“Santa’s Christmas Eve starts with rice porridge - in Finland we call it Christmas porridge. It is accompanied with sweet blueberry, strawberry or cranberry soup. It is tradition that we hide a mandel (almond) in the porridge bowl. The finder is a lucky one and can end up getting married within a year´s run.”