Sami Tallberg encourages everyone to try wild food and foraging. His advice is to trust your instincts and let nature take you on a tour. Image: Julia Bushueva

DO I KNOW YOU? “Wild food isn’t just a privilege of rich people or fancy restaurants, it’s an everyman’s right”, Sami Tallberg states

After years spent working in high-profile restaurants around the world, wild food has become Sami Tallberg’s “ikigai”, his reason for being.

Eeva Haaramo

03.03.2022

Mention cooking with wild food in Finland, and one name immediately springs up: Sami Tallberg. The chef and entrepreneur has made it his life mission to build enthusiasm aboutnature’s supermarket”: the plethora of tasty, nutrition-rich ingredients nature has to offer. In 2010, his Wild Herb Cookbook made a trend out of foraging and is already in its 11th edition.

Over the last two decades, Tallberg’s achievements are numerous. He has worked in renowned restaurants in London and Helsinki, published several cookbooks and catered events worldwide. In 2012, he was awarded the Finland Prize by the Finnish Ministry of Culture and Education for his work with Finnish food ingredients. Despite this, in person Tallberg remains a down-to-earth, passionate person who loves his job and enjoys the peace and quiet of his home in the Turku archipelago. His key message? Respect and appreciate nature, and new culinary experiences will open up before you.

Good News from Finland chatted with Sami about all things wild food, his new restaurant project and the fantastic story behind Finland’s everyman’s rights [“jokamiehen oikeudet”].

Sami encourages everyone to try making a salad from different combinations of wild herbs. Image: Facebook / Sami Tallberg

You are an acclaimed chef, a prolific cookbook author, you organise biohacking workshops and foraging courses… The list goes on. I get the feeling you aren’t someone who sits still for long. How would you describe yourself as a person?

I’m an on-off type of dude. I get a huge drive to get things done when I start doing something. And I’ve followed my passion, my ‘ikigai’. So I’m pretty full-on with what I do.

I used to work in restaurants in London for eight years. That’s where I got into the restaurant industry and realised food is definitely my passion. I was a youngster when I got there, so I learnt how to work and get things done in a metropolitan city. That is probably where my level of activity comes from, the pace of working is very different there [compared to Finland].

You mentioned the Japanese concept ‘ikigai’. What does it mean to you?

Basically, it means the purpose of my life. Obviously, I have other purposes as well, like being a dad for two kids and being a husband. But if we talk about my profession and what I’m here to do in this universe [then it’s wild food].

It’s the thing that I have a strong passion for and why I get going every morning. And I’m pretty good at it as well. So that is an important part of ikigai. Something that you’re good at and something that the world needs. And if you can get paid for it, then that is bingo.

You are renowned for your passion for wild plants and known as an ambassador for Finnish wild food. How did this passion start?

Actually, this spring marks the 20th anniversary of my very first foraging trip. I was working in London at the time. It was a Thursday afternoon in May, always the busiest lunchtime. We had 120 people coming for lunch, and we were well prepared in the kitchen.

Picture of Sami Tallberg

“I think it’s kind of mysterious and mystical how nature works. Nature is giving to those who need it and who approach nature with respect and openness,” Tallberg contemplates. Image: Suvi Kesäläinen / Finnish Design Shop

Before we got really slammed in the kitchen, I saw a vintage van parked illegally in front of the restaurant. This hippy-looking guy jumped out of the vehicle, took something from the boot and threw it on his shoulder. I remember that day like it was yesterday because it changed my life.

So this dude came into the kitchen and said, “Hello chef, would you like to buy some sea kale?” He wanted to sell us some wild vegetables. I could sense something was happening here, so I told him he had to wait. This guy was Miles Irving. He sat there for 90 minutes and watched us perform an absolutely perfect lunch service.

Then I opened that bag of sea kale. It looked terrific and fresh. My passion for using seasonal ingredients, and often with minimum processing, started in 1997 when I worked as a chef in the Ivy in London. So that day, we already had hollandaise sauce prepared for dinner as it was asparagus season. I cooked a handful of the sea kale for two minutes, added some hollandaise on top and tasted it. I still think it’s the noblest vegetable I have ever come across. I was blown away by it and bought everything Miles had.

That evening our catch of the day was brill with a handful of cooked sea kale and a big spoon of hollandaise sauce. I had sixty portions of this. We started evening service at six o’clock, and by seven we had sold out. That was a powerful sign for me.

So this experience inspired you to go foraging yourself?

Yes, it only took a few days and I was in foraging with Miles in Kent. It was the optimum season to forage sea kale, there was tons of it. It was low tide, and there were loads of oysters as well. I ate like two dozen wild oysters. Then I noticed there was a lot of this beautiful yellow blooming flower. It was wild fennel, and it blew this anise smell into my nostrils. That was heaven for a chef.

We then found this little oasis of a place with a stream running in the middle of it. As I enjoyed the view, I noticed that the stream bank was covered with wild watercress. It happened to be my favourite salad leaf at that time, and there was so much of it that I couldn’t believe my eyes.

These little spots, these little happenings, were my introduction to the beauty and guidance of nature as the ultimate wild, green supermarket and my sanctuary. That is where it all started. I kept in touch with Miles, and wild herbs became the core of my gastronomy.

Various foods made by Sami Tallberg

Sami made various dishes for the Chelsea Music Festival to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Jean Sibelius. Image: Facebook / Sami Tallberg

How did all this turn into a Finnish wild herb cookbook?

The move from the UK back to Finland was a big culture shock for me. The restaurant culture and the ingredients were very ‘dusty’ compared to what was available in London. If I wanted to get some wild herbs, I needed to go and find them myself.

Miles came over, and we did these foraging events with him and some other Finnish chefs. During those trips, we realised the whole core of Finnish gastronomy is actually based on wild ingredients. So I just kind of adopted that as my mission and started acting on that.

[For a long time], I had this vision that I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write a book about wild herbs and found this Finnish website Luontoportti [nature gate] for identifying wild plants, trees and animals. I met the couple who were behind it, Eila and Jouko Lehmuskallio, and immediately realised they were my tribe.

They’ve worked with plants and nature all of their life. They’re a bit like a rockandroll couple. They used to take photographs of punk bands in New York, then changed their focus on nature. They had a massive range of pictures of Finnish wild plants and information on them from a team of biologists. So we teamed up and made the Wild Herb Cookbook about identifying and using wild herbs.

It’s been a wild ride ever since. I’ve written 10 different cookbooks. I’ve done interviews for magazines about wild food and trained people on how to forage these goods and how to use them. It’s definitely my ikigai, what I’m doing now.

You have worked and organised events all around the world. What has been your most memorable culinary experience?

There have been many special experiences. Team Finland hired me to cater their events around the globe, in places like Namibia and Kazakhstan. So I took Finnish wild herbs with me and combined them with local ingredients, like fish and game. In Tanzania, for example, we served local grilled shellfish with Finnish wild roses as a dressing.

Tallberg’s first cookbook, Wild Herb Cookbook, came out in 2010. It’s now in its 11th edition and has expanded to cover 111 wild plants. Image: Sami Tallberg

Still, one of my most memorable gigs was in Savitaipale [in South Karelia, Finland]. It’s just a small village in the middle of nowhere. If we really want to make wild food popular on a larger scale, we need to teach it to our kids. Wild food isn’t just a privilege of rich people or fancy restaurants, but it’s an everyman’s right to get out there in the wild and find the most nutritious food. So we need to teach everyman’s rights, healthy food, exercise. If you learn these when you are young, you can make a habit out of them for the rest of your life.

So I spoke about this at the Savitaipale school. After 15 minutes, I noticed the students couldn’t take any more information. We jumped on bikes, found a place to forage and quickly found ten different plants to use. We cooked a nice, simple meal out of them.

The following year, the school invited me back, and we did this same thing on a little bit larger scale. The whole day was dedicated to wild food. The local fishermen caught vendace and the school chef smoked them at the school’s backyard. I made a wild herb salad with the students and their parents. There were birch sap drinks, rye bread and chaga candies I had ordered from a factory in Porvoo.

We served this full spectrum of wild food to the students. It really made a warm impact in my heart, a feeling that I have a deeper purpose.

What can Finnish food culture offer to the world?

Wild herbs, wild berries, wild mushrooms, wild fish, game. We have definitely a lot to offer. If you ask anybody who comes to Finland for pleasure what they are expecting from their trip, I would say that wild food is on top of their list. But Finns haven’t really realised this.

And what is so special about wild herbs and plants here? We are so up north and the sunlight is so intense that the plants are potent in vitamins, minerals and medicinal ingredients.

My favourite way of serving wild herbs to someone who hasn’t tasted them before is to make a wild herb salad, especially in April, May and June. It’s simple to do, and, when you eat one bowl, you get so many nutrients that it hits you and fills you with energy.

A angelica dessert

A dessert made of angelica and topped with flower petals. Image: Facebook / Sami Tallberg

Then we have everyman’s rights. I’d like to highlight a lady called Ilma Lindgren, who is basically behind Finland’s everyman’s rights. Over a hundred years ago, a group of school children, led by three ladies, were picking berries. Then they knocked on the land owner’s door to ask if they could have some water.

The two brothers who opened the door realised the kids were picking berries from their land. So they demanded the berries. But Ilma refused and said, you don’t actually own these blueberries, it’s every man’s right to pick these berries. The men took her to court. The first verdict said the berries were part of the guys’ land. The second grade of courts made the same ruling. After six years of proceedings in total, the Supreme Court finally decided the brothers should pay back the worth of the berries plus a fine.

After that incident, protection for everyman’s rights was added to the Finnish law. Ilma is an absolute star.

What are your top tips for someone going foraging in Finnish nature for the first time?

I’d like to highlight my book because I’ve had so much good feedback about it. Also, you don’t have to remember all the plants. That is my first tip, you can start with just one plant.

Another tip is to go first thing in the morning and leave your phone home. Just go to the woods without any noise. Let nature be your healing surrounding.

Actually, the range of plants is always more expansive in cities because people help spread plants. So it’s a good idea to go to Helsinki’s central park, Lauttasaari, Vuosaari, Maunula or somewhere like that, and you can find vast amounts of a wide range of ingredients.

Rose and cabbage salad

A great way to try eating flowers is to combine them with more familiar flavours. Tallberg recommends, for example, trying wild rose petals with blueberries. Image: Facebook / Sami Tallberg

There’s an old saying, “the shoemaker’s children always go barefoot”. Does this apply to you, or do you enjoy cooking in your free time?

I have had maybe three years when I didn’t want to cook at home. But I’ve taken some time off and put my life in balance. I’m definitely enjoying cooking again, and the more I‘ve tried out things, the simpler my own taste has become. I live in the countryside and eat as seasonal and wild as possible.

There isn’t anything very complicated about wild food. And you don’t have to get too serious about it. Just eat wild herbs with your barbecue sausage or something else you like. The important thing is you give them a try.

Your latest venture is a restaurant at the Finnish Design Shop’s logistics centre in Turku. Could you tell me more about this project?

Teemu Kiiski, CEO of the Finnish Design Shop, rang me in May 2021. We had met in a couple of events around the globe where I’d done wild food and biohacker food, which is basically highly nutritious food. It’s my speciality alongside wild herbs.

They were opening a logistics centre and a showroom for the Finnish Design Shop and asked if I’d be interested in running a restaurant there. I replied it was exactly what I had ordered from the universe. I met Teemu only twice at the building site, but we kind of clicked immediately. We signed the papers, and now we are slowly opening.

Interior of the ST x FDS restaurant

The soon-opening ST x FDS lunch restaurant reflects Tallberg’s passion for delicious, nutritious food and surprising taste combinations. Image: Suvi Kesäläinen / Finnish Design Shop

The people working in the building eat in the restaurant every day so we obviously wanna provide a safe environment for them. I’ve made the menu it combines wild herbs, seasonal food and worldwide gastronomy – and this brasserie type restaurant will open to the public as soon as the [COVID-19] restrictions are gone.

The logistics centre is located right next to this nature reserve called Pomponrahka. So you can come and have a little walk in the woods and eat at our place.

What do you consider your greatest success or career highlight?

Definitely the fact I was awarded the Finnish cultural achievement award Finland Prize in 2012. I got it for offering a totally new angle to Finnish ingredients.

Also, the Wild Herb Cookbook. It already has its 11th edition coming out. The book has created something that isn’t just a tiny trend. Foraging has become a lifestyle, and that is my greatest legacy.

What would you like to still achieve?

I’m letting the cosmic forces show me what’s happening next. Yeah, that is a perfect way [to phrase it].

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