Kala Kukko is what wives in the Savo region of Finland pack for their husband’s lunch. It’s so definitively Finnish that the European Union has added Kala Kukko to its “Protected Designation of Origin” list. It is to Savo what Parmigiano Reggiano is to Parma, Italy.
Kala Kukko is “fish in bread,” specifically a large loaf of warm rye bread in which is baked some kind of fish — from perch to salmon — with a bit of bacon (the Finns use salt pork). Some recipes I found bake the loaves for four to five hours at a low temperature; any fish bones melt away, and the interior bacon-draped fish is still piping hot at noon, when that hard-working Finnish husband cuts into it for lunch. Traditionally, the top of the loaf was cut off and eaten separately with butter, leaving a “bread bowl” of fish inside — early Panera!
My fascination with this odd Finnish specialty began with a Lanesville cookbook of Finnish recipes printed in 1955. I’m always scanning community cookbooks for familiar names; the names that thread through this book are Bistema, Poli, Olsen, Nikola, Finnish surnames I’ve heard mentioned in my neighborhood.
One of the most interesting recipes in the book, Kala Kukko, stood out for me, not just for its uniqueness but as the lone contribution of Saima Natti Hancock. Saima Hancock, wife of the nationally renowned sculptor Walker Hancock, grew up in Lanesville; she was No. 3 of 12 Natti children. According to her daughter Deanie Hancock French, Saima’s older brothers first befriended the sculptor Hancock, and never intended to share him. They seemed to have wanted to keep the gentle, talented man to themselves. But Walker met Saima eventually, and the two maintained what Deanie says was the longest courtship ever, 14 years. Roger Edsel, in “Monuments Men,” the story of Hancock’s and others’ successful efforts to save troves of European masterpieces stolen by the Nazis, describes Saima as Hancock’s “great love.”