Finland's poet + his sweet tooth
If you’ve ever been to Finland in February — if you’re the adventurous backpacking type to brave the coldest month of the year -- you probably stumbled upon a Runeberg torte. This sugary, jam-filled concoction begins gracing the shelves at the end of January, with the required day of consumption being February 5th, on Runeberg Day. You see, this man is a national hero. Not because of his baking skills (that was actually all his wife…behind every great man is a great woman ;)), but for his writings, which evoked national patriotism in the hearts of him and his fellow Finns.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg is the national poet of Finland and the author of the lyrics which became the Finnish National Anthem, 40 years after his death. (Finland was a part of the Kingdom of Sweden when Runeberg was born in 1804 and then had been passed on over to the Russian Empire just five years later). Many of his poems deal with life in rural Finland: the trivialities of living in a poor nation and the sisi of the Finns to continue on, through the harsh climate and years of bad harvests.
Due to the time and where he was born, Runeberg was Swedish speaking and although he did speak some Finnish, he remained most comfortable in Swedish throughout his life. His sempiternal works include the idealist poem Älgskyttarna (Elk Hunters) and the epic Kung Fjalar (King Fjalar). Apart from Kalevala, Fänrik Ståls Sägner (The Tales of Ensign Stål) is considered the greatest Finnish epic poem. It contains tales of the Finnish War of 1808–1809, wherein Sweden ceded Finland to Russia in the Treaty of Hamina. The epic tale emphasizes the common humanity of all sides in the conflict, but still, notably, lauding the heroism of the Finns. The poem Vårt land (Our Land), which was a prologue to the epic tale, became the Finnish National Anthem.
His wife, Fredrika Runeberg (who happened to be his second cousin), was a badass woman in her own right: she was purportedly the first woman journalist in Finland, writing under a male pseudonym. She was such a natural linguist, speaking 5-6 languages fluently, that in their elder years, when her husband was ill, she would read bedside to him, translating the books into Swedish as she read them in other languages. They spent the majority of their life together in Porvoo, a quiet town where one can stroll at an amble pace along the riverside. You can visit their home, which is now a small museum showcasing different moments in their lives. You can see the original draft of the now National Anthem, some of Frederika’s writings and cookbooks, and gifts given to the family from various governments and military forces.
Also at their home is the garden where the famous Runeberg torte was created. There are a lot of different versions to this story, and the one at the museum is different than the one I knew prior, but my favorite is the romanticized, most likely not true, version I first heard. So that’s the one I’m passing down the grapevine! According to the tale, the Runeberg family was often tight on money, but Fredrika was frugal with their bank accounts and took every liberty to stretch the money out. Her husband had a sweet tooth and notoriously grumpy moods (nowadays we just call this “hangry”). So to appease him, but also save money, she would take leftover bread crumbs from dinner the night before, add some punch and jam, and top them with fruit from the garden. The sugar-lovin’ Runeberg loved them so much, they became a part of his daily breakfast. And now Finns love it so much (there are some killer sweet tooths here), it has become a beloved annual tradition — except, in true style, the punch is substituted for liquor ;)
If you want to visit the museum in Porvoo and see the garden where the magic happened, it’s open every day from 10-16 and easily accessible by bus from Helsinki. It’s 8€ for adults, 6€ for students, seniors, and unemployed, and free for children under 18. It’s also museum-hater approved — my boyfriend loved it because it’s small, meaning less things for me to stay around reading :)
And don't worry if you're not visiting around Runeberg day -- bakeries in Porvoo often stock the torte year-round!