Google Murmansk and you’ll find the top things to do are 1) visit the world’s first nuclear-powered ship and 2) check out the Murmansk Regional Museum of Local Lore’s Exhibit of the Month. Which is interesting because, right now, that’s a couple of reindeer – the main constituent of the region’s unofficial dish.
A federal subject of Russia whose original inhabitants were the Sámi people, the Murmansk Oblast is basically the sticky out bit to the east of Scandinavia – technically known as the Kola Peninsula. It’s a cold place (hardly surprising; it’s almost entirely within the Arctic Circle) of mountains, tundra, and taiga; the Gulf Stream on one side and Arctic cold fronts on the other making for a harsh and unstable climate. But then all that coastline does come in handy. The Oblast is also pretty important to the Russian Navy, home to several bases and shipyards, and the location of the Northern Fleet headquarters.
It’s a region roughly 17 times the size of our island, but with almost exactly the same number of people. And this lends it a population density of just 5.5 people per square kilometre, most of whom work in the fishing and mining industries. Originally, Murmansk was all about fur trapping and reindeer herding: the region’s traditional inhabitants (who, following the Paris Peace Treaties of 1947, were given the option to stay in Soviet Russia or resettle in Finland) the semi-nomadic Laplanders.
Today, the term is considered derogatory and we refer instead to the Sámi. A very small minority in the region (the majority having plumped for the second option back in the 40s), they’re a people who have nevertheless left a mark on the culture in terms of their cuisine… Even today, 10 per cent of the Sámi are connected to reindeer herding (2,800 of whom are actively involved on a full-time basis), and sautéed reindeer is still considered the region’s most official dish.
Like the Sámi themselves, the dish appears across the entire northern region of Sweden, Finland and the Murmansk Oblast. It’s eminently healthy fare; incredibly lean, rich in vitamins, and packed with almost as many omega-3s as fish. Usually composed of the steak or back of the reindeer, the dish comprises thin slices of meat fried in fat, spiced with black pepper and salt and then cooked until tender in either water, cream or beer.
The Finns enjoy theirs with pickled cucumber, Swedes tend to like a side of lingonberry preserves, and in Murmansk? Well, anything goes, but a bit of mashed potato is said to compensate for the natural toughness of reindeer. Especially if, prior to cooking, your reindeer meat has been preserved.