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.”
Saima Natti Hancock died almost 30 years ago, but she has fascinated me ever since I moved to Folly Cove and began to understand the closely knit community of artists and Finns living here. Saima, to me, is the person who must have perfectly — if not sometimes painfully — bridged the two cultures. While her brothers could enjoy Walker as a brilliant sculptor living among them, being their friend, it was Saima who needed to leave her familiar Lanesville and stand beside Walker with some of the world’s most prominent people. Deanie tells a wonderful story that describes a familiar moment in any marriage but one probably repeated often in the Hancocks’:
“When my mother and father were first married, they were going to a party at a very wealthy family, the Sinclairs. On the way my father kept saying to my mother, ‘don’t say this or that.’ Saima finally said, ‘you don’t need to tell me what to say, Walker!’ and refused to get out of the car until he apologized.”
Saima apparently loved clothes and design; shopping for new outfits was one of her favorite pastimes. She had wanted to study interior design, but the Depression changed that course. Instead Saima attended Wheelock College and taught kindergarten in New Jersey.
When I asked Deanie to describe her mother and her mother’s cooking, she said this:
“Actually, I don’t remember her cooking very many Finnish recipes, outside of nisu, but she made coffee by putting grounds directly in the water, bringing it to a boil, and then removing it immediately from the heat.
“She had a very whimsical sense of humor, we laughed a lot. Every summer of my childhood we swam together in the small pit in our backyard. We loved blueberry picking together, singing Finnish songs, sitting on the rocks at Folly Cove. I have a photo of her swishing me around in Folly Cove water when I was a baby.
“She loved Folly Cove more than just about anyplace — had swan-dived off the high cliffs as a teenager. She had a natural grace about her, a completely natural dignity.
“But, also, she was the dragon at the gate for my father’s sake, trying to keep visitors at bay while he worked at the studio.”
Of Saima’s Kala Kukko Deanie says, “Kala Kukko was not a staple in our diet. I only remember having it a couple of times, and can’t think of the occasion. But I do remember it was good.”
From a blog on Finnish foods, I found this: “One of the most important aspects of the Kala Kukko experience is arguing with your friends or neighbors about them. The argument should concern things such as which fish makes the best filling, the best way to eat them, serving temperature and so on. You must form strong opinions about Kala Kukko and tell them to the world. It really doesn’t matter if someone wants to hear them or not.”
Tucked behind St. Mary’s Church in Rockport is a meditation garden, in which stands a tender Hancock sculpture, “Christ the Good Shepherd,” in memory of Saima Natti Hancock. Saima loved to garden, her daughter says. I think she was a woman who filled her life with beauty.
I have adapted Hancock’s recipe a bit; I cut in half the amount of dough, and cooked the bacon in advance, making a loaf with less bread and adding a little bit of texture to the filling. Don’t expect the bacon to be crisp; it bakes here for an hour and a half.
Saima Natti Hancock’s Kala Kukko
Makes one loaf, serves 6
1 package of yeast
2 cups warm water
3/4 pound rye flour
White flour as needed
1 teaspoon salt
1 pound cod or salmon
3 slices crisply cooked bacon
Cornmeal for the baking sheet
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
In a large bowl dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Add the rye flour and stir until smooth. Let rise overnight in a warm place. Stir in white flour and salt until batter becomes a firm dough. Knead well, and let it rise again in a warm place. Punch down dough, and knead into a loaf. Let it rise again.
Pat dough out onto a floured board. Lay fillet in the center of the dough. Sprinkle lightly with salt. Lay bacon strips down the fillet. Fold in the edges of the dough, and then fold over the top and bottom to make a package. Flip over the “dough package” so the seams are on the bottom.
Lay the dough on a cornmeal-sprinkled baking sheet, and bake for 11/2 hours.
I find it best served in slices accompanied by a fresh salad.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to email@example.com. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.