Reindeer meat has always been the most important food of the Sámi, an ethnic group native to Northern Europe who live in the Sápmi region, a strip of land that crosses the north of four countries: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia.
The Sámi have their own language and a culture deeply shaped by the extreme conditions in which they live. Their winter lasts more than six months and temperatures not infrequently drop to 30° below zero. The fleeting Arctic summer is barely enough time to save a certain amount of berries, wild herbs and lichen; the main source of food is the large herds of reindeer that migrate each year across the polar circle.
Today, out of 35000 Sámi of Swedish nationality, about 3000 are reindeer herders, a profession reserved by law for this ethnic group. Reindeer are semi-wild animals: they spend the winter grazing in the forests and climb to higher altitudes during the spring and summer. Although they are no longer a nomadic population and innovations such as helicopters and snowmobiles have radically changed their work, many Sámi still follow the herds as they migrate from the forests to the mountain ranges.
Most of the traditional foods have been elaborated with the aim of preserving themselves for a long time to accompany the nomads’ long journeys.
One of the most important preparations is Suovas, a lean fillet that is simply salted and smoked over a direct fire for eight hours. Tasty, aromatic but delicate, it is eaten in thin slices, accompanied by sweet and sour mushrooms and small red berries (lingon). It can be eaten grilled or raw and cured.
During their travels, the Sámi accompany Suovas with a typical unleavened bread, warmed on stones around the camp fire.
Gurpi is a type of cured reindeer meat, a specialty of the Sámi, an indigenous nomadic herding people who live in the mountains round Idre in the north of Sweden on the border with Norway, and also in Finland and Russia. The reindeer plays a fundamental role in their lives.
Gurpi is especially interesting because it is made with meat left over from other preparations, in which the Sámi exploit every part of the body save the head.
First, any meat left on the bones – on cutlets, for example – is removed and placed in a container. Then small lumps of fat and salt are added, and all the ingredients are mixed together. The mixture is then left to rest at least overnight to allow the salt to dissolve and penetrate the fibers of the meat. When it is tender, it is rolled into a long loaf and wrapped in caul.
The resulting Gurpi is smoked for two to six or seven hours (every producer has a recipe of their own) in a kota, a traditional Sámi tent or shed. Slightly damp birch wood is used to produce more smoke.
Since Gurpi keeps well and can be fried or grilled according to necessity, Sámi nomadic herders used to eat it during long periods of transhumance with their reindeer.
Some elderly producers still tell of the times when gurpi was never cooked, but kept in a perforated container to allow the air to dry and ferment it naturally in the course of the journey. In this way, it lasted longer as an ever-ready source of protein.
Today Gurpi may be fried in butter or, better still, in reindeer fat, and served with puréed vegetables or salad, or with sauces or preserves made with typical Scandinavian summer berries.
Both Presidia wish to safeguard the artisanal and traditional products of the Sápmi region.
The Suovas Presidium wishes to safeguard the traditional preparation of Suovas made only from the tender meat cut from the reindeer’s inner loin (Coarbealli in Sami language) and brings together Suovas producers in Swedish Sápmi.
Presidium Suovas is made from the meat of semi-wild animals that are slaughtered every autumn and winter; it is prepared throughout the year with the most traditional techniques of preparation, salting, smoking, and curing. The reindeer used to produce Presidium Suovas are not given any antibiotics or man-made feeds and graze entirely on the natural forage found in Sápmi. The Presidium, which it is hoped will eventually include all Sápmi producers, is working to raise awareness of this ancient cured meat and to encourage the consumption of reindeer meat instead of introducing ill-adapted domesticated animals that may harm this Arctic region’s delicate ecosystem.
The aim of the Gurpi project is to protect traditional Sami gurpi production and to raise its profile on the market.
The meat comes from free-range reindeers reared in pastures in the forests, unfed by man and without being treated with antibiotics. The animals feed exclusively on grass, mushrooms and lichen, and are butchered every autumn, from October to December, when the mating season is over and their meat is superior. The meat is processed in legally approved workshops, then smoked over naked fires inside the traditional kota tents.
The fact that the reindeer are raised in the wild is extremely important even when the moment comes to butcher them. The Sami, in fact, build huge pens in the forest, sometimes with a diameter of several kilometers, and herd the reindeer into them. They then choose the animals they wish to butcher and coax them into smaller pens that are still, nevertheless, large enough for them to graze on the grass and mushrooms and plants normally available in the forest. This system of smaller pens, designed to take the reindeer gradually closer to the area where they are to be slaughtered, causes no stress to the animals since it does not involve transporting or catching them.
The reindeer are thus not subjected to the stress of conventional slaughter and their meat is more tender as a result. Traditionally Sami butchers thank each reindeer before slaughtering them.
The Presidium strives to promote knowledge of this ancient cured meat, indissolubly bound to the culture of the Sami, a people who preserve highly sustainable traditional practices.