Runeberg's tarts: When the poet's breakfast meets the food industry
J.L. Runeberg is a celebrated poet who lived, worked and enjoyed his breakfasts in the mid 19th century Finland. In modern times his birthday is remembered with the delicious Runeberg's tarts which he consumed with punch. The recipe, as rumour says, originates from the baker Lars Astenius, and made famous by Runeberg's wife Fredrika who dutifully served tarts for the famous poet .
The original humble crumble-cake with apple jam topping is the past: today there is a variety of recipes including exotic spices, almonds/almond aroma and aromatic spirits made of sugar cane (arrach, rum). Topping with raspberry jam and sugar icing gives the tart a distinct look and extra sweetness.
Runeberg's cakes are no easy desserts. The secret of the right texture is finding the optimal moisture and stickiness of the dough, and providing a good bite of almonds with a hint of cardamom and rum. Optimal balance between the sweet dough and tart raspberry jam is another critical issue. The cake is rather heavy and overly sweet.
The modern food industry makes the cakes long before Runeberg's Day. The product is stored and sold frozen to the groceries, where the thawed R's tarts must be sold quickly, within cc. 4-5 days. The original recipe has 10-15 ingredients while the mass products contain 25-27 ingredients, out of which we find 5-13 E-labelled materials. Typically colorings, jellyfiers, preservatives and raising agents. Sugar content is high, 20-30g / 100g. Even homemade cake had 24g/100g. The jam topping consists of 8 - 35% of real fruits on the mass products.
Given its complexity, Runeberg's tarts are relatively expensive in the shops. The price for a two-piece package ranges between 2.5 - 4.6 Euro in the shops, while one piece costs 2.5 - 3Euro in cafés.
The cake is served in Finland from mid-January until 5th February, the Runeberg's Day. A few major Finnish firms (Fazer, Myllyn Paras,Vaasan etc.) and numerous small bakeries provide a fair assortment of this cakes, of which we selected a diverse sortiment of products including two gluten-free and one organic product, too.
In a blind test five testers gave free evaluation on the products and a score between 1 - 10 to describe the overall experience. One stands for the "inedible bad" cakes while ten indicates the perfect cake that one would buy and eat any time. Scores below 6 refer to an overall negative opinion, while 6 or above 6 show a positive evaluation.
In general we found the cakes good, but none of them stood out for it's especially good (or bad) look and taste. Our overall favorite was the cake of Fazer, while the gluten-free Huvilan tart received the lowest scores. This is no surprise: Fazer satisfies the general taste with a pretty, not too exciting but well composed cake. Huvilan, on the other hand, represents the creative individualism of a small café at Mannerheim street, which may not be so pleasing to everyone, but (as one of our testers has also proved) meets some special requirements. Its texture is like fine sawdust, dry and homogenous. The cake has gingerbread spices, and holds a surprise: filling of strawberry jam! The taste resembles to a Christmas cake rather than R's tart. This avant-garde cake has immediately splitted the testing group into lovers and haters, and induced great frictions among the testers. One of us almost collapsed seeing how "dangerous minds" can turn a great traditional cake into that thing, while others - admitting the odd taste - did actually value the novel approach.
Price-satisfaction ratio showed three groups of products: homemade cake stood alone as very cheap and relatively highly valued. Second, mass products, prices low to medium, received moderate and high rates while the most expensive cakes - receiving moderate and low rates - are available in cafés and small bakeries.
This is great, but which ones will the Finns actually pick?
Despite the great diversity, Finns are most likely consume the product of Fazer and Vaasan. Why? Besides small islets of diverse and exciting cuisine on the Finnish culinary landscape, most of Helsinki is a deserted unforgiving land, where good restaurants and cafés are scarce and most food are found in the stores of the two giant companies "K" and "S" groups. Even private grocery stores are missing.
Owning most retail stores and chain restaurants in the city, K and S groups have gained a great control on what we, the masses eat. Check out the stats:
From the nine cakes we found in K and S owned shops Fazer and Vaasan was present everywhere, while EHO and Sinuhe appeared occasionally as third product, while the gluten-free Vuohelan was found only in one shop (S-Market Herttoniemi). Make no mistake: cafés in Itäkeskus and swimming halls and chain eateries had one (Fazer or Myllyn Paras or Vaasan) - or none, without exception.
As a conclusion, for this short period of time of the year, unless you're a flour sensitive, it seems sensible either to bake your own, or to pick one of the mass products in the groceries.
Gluten-free products are hard to find and cause certain surprises. (As if people suffering from flour intolerance would've demanded for different flavors and textures as the rest of the population do). Organic cakes are hardly existent - you must be resourceful and persistent to find some.
The Runeberg's testing squad this time:
- Ildikó, microbiologist, gastro-blogger (www.ildikokki.blogspot.com)
- Maarja, development biologist
- Péter, plant geneticist
- Nenad, pharmacologist
- Neil, bryologist
The test was coordinated by Niina Ala-Fossi (photographer) and Ferenc Vilisics (urban ecologist).