I could talk about the fact that in 3 days I became the best Belgian Nordic skier, that Finnish women are the most beautiful (at least after a few drinks) and that 28°C is fucking cold (Finns do not specify the minus as they know that during the winter the temperature is under zero), but as this is a food & wine blog, I will talk about some unknown treasures…
In my life I try to combine pleasure (my work) with fun, and this time this would be a trip to Helsinki again, but this time combined with a 4-days trip to Lapland during the winter of 2012. Finland is not known for its food culture, even being part of the ‘Nordic’ countries, which seems to be the keyword in the world of food those days. Former French President Jacques Chirac once said: ‘After Finland, Britain is the country with the worst food.’ Ouch!! Gangster Silvio Berlusconi agrees, ‘I’ve been to Finland and I had to endure the Finnish diet…’ Double ouch!! Former Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen luckily replied back in the defence of Finnish food with, ‘I like spaghetti, as long as it is not spiced too much. I like simple food.’ Zing!!
Dear reader, what’s your favourite Finnish restaurant in your country? Can’t name one? Don’t worry. No one can, as there aren’t any. Finnish cuisine doesn’t really exist. Sure there are some specialities you won’t find elsewhere in the world, but these were created out of necessity or durability, rather than taste.
The capital has restaurants of course, but sadly I never saw such a concentration of kebabs and pizzeria, and most of the time the two combined and owned by a Finnish speaking Turk. That last part deserves an enormous respect! Hot-dog stands seems also very popular at night. Strangely enough the ‘normal’ restaurants (ravintola in Finnish) belong very often to a group, where for instance also one of the big supermarket chains belongs. If it rains in Copenhagen and Stockholm, then nothing happens in Helsinki. The Finnish population, known for its innovation, engineering skills and sober quietness seems to stay in standby mode when it comes to food and wine. Of course there are exceptions and writing this, I know some people who will be disappointed in my introduction. There are since a couple of years some new restaurants popping up, but I seem to be going back to the same ones all the time, after trying others. My favourite is without a doubt the fabulous Chef and Sommelier (see 2 pictures) and when visiting it, say hi to Sasu. This restaurant is a no-bullshit place with honest local organic food, prepared in an innovative way, and full of passion*. They clearly know what to do with all those unique ingredients, which seem to be an exception of the rule. Let the product speaks for itself!!
The more often I go to Helsinki, and believe me, I have good reasons, the more I love the country. I still don’t understand the language and I still have difficulties with the surficial coldness of the people (they call it shyness), but once you know them you realise how wonderful people they are. The beauty of this huge country with its never ending landscapes is unique. And to come back on topic, they have some wonderful nature’s pure products which belong into people’s stomachs. I am not sure with what to start…
Aloitetaas... Far in the swamps of the Northern forests grows an orange berry, called cloudberry (Lakka in Finnish). I felt deeply in love with this little beauty, with her unique character. The first time I tasted it was two years ago in Geranium (Copenhagen) and F12 (Stockholm). They are very difficult to find and on location you pay at least 30 euro per kilo. In some shops in Finland and at the airport you can find marmalade of it, but of course this is not the same. During the winter you can find them frozen. A typical local coffee snack is Leipäjuusto (a cow milk cheese) suffused with the cloudberries. The cheese is almost tasteless, but there is no better way to guarantee the juicy taste of the fruit. Beside this cloudberry you can find a lot of different more-known berries. Did you know that the best strawberries are coming from the far North? No, I am not kidding and no I don’t have Aquavit in my blood! Ladies and gentlemen, I say without a doubt, forget our conservatory strawberries or the one cooking in the tropical sun of South of Europe. Try to taste, at least once in your life, one strawberry from the North of Finland, meaning the area where during the summer the sun is not disappearing and do not cause extreme temperatures, so that the berries can slowly ripe.
Jatketaan! Maybe less unknown is the reindeer. I have tried during my stay in Lapland different versions: the dried, what seems to be sold as a candy, the smoked, often presented in a starter, the more traditional minced version with red currants and mashed potatoes, and also a grilled version. All very tasteful. The only piece missing on my track record is the liver of veal. But maybe the encounter with an entire family in the wild forest during one of my long winter sport session made my heart soft. Can it be even more tasteful? Kyllä!! Try a piece of moose. Ladies and gentlemen, this is so good, that it should be forbidden. The meat is so rich, that you can’t stop eating, but luckily the bill will make you stop ordering more. There are plenty of other games, with bear being the most exotic, and I guess the most exclusive. Try one of the Russian restaurants in Helsinki if you want to taste it.
Very often Finns forget another of their national proud: game birds or at least the meat of it. The fact that Finland has a high concentration of rifles means also that there are no statistics about the consumption of game meat, but for sure many ends up on Mika’s or Tapio’s plate. Speaking about statistics: addiction to illegal drugs may be low in Finland, but addiction to caffeine is the highest in the world. The average person consumes 1.3 kg of coffee each year, while in Finland the average person consumes 12 kg each year. An explanation could be the long, cold, dark winters, but how come that ice-cream consumption is also huge per inhabitant in this part of the world? Hä?
Writing this now in the autumn made me also remembering the fact that everyone is free to forage mushrooms in the many forests. A one-hour search made me once collecting plenty of chanterelles and four boletes (they were no ceps that time). Did you know that Finland export a lot of ceps to Italy, so remember when paying a lot of money for those dried mushrooms during your stay in Tuscany or another Italian region that there is a big change that they are from a forest somewhere in the North of Europe. Wild herbs can be also found easily in nature, but surprisingly the whole population spices their dishes with only salt and pepper, and that’s it.
Every Finn knows that a hearty bowl of non-sugared porridge in the morning will last you until lunchtime – which is about 10:30 – so porridge lasts about two or three hours. And as every Finnish freezer is packed with berries and jams, so toss these in your porridge if you’re into food with flavour. I still didn’t convinced one Finnish person that marmalade can also be put on bread. They honestly don’t see the point… Finland has very good bread, with dark rye as being the most common, but you should also try the following breads during your visit (no way you will find this outside Finland, even if you can pronounce it correctly): saaristoleipä, näkkileipä, rieska, limppu,…
Okei, hijennetään vähäsen... The advantage of Finland is that if you don’t have a sea close to you, for sure there are plenty of clean lakes and rivers in the neighbourhood. And this simple fact means that there is a large amount of fresh and pure fish and shellfish close to every kitchen. The most exquisite salmon can be found, but I honestly prefer the arctic char more, and if during the season they serve crayfish, I don’t look at other options on a menu. Blini’s, the Russian pancakes are very familiar those days, and can be found in most supermarkets wherever you live. There is also a Finnish version, a much bigger one, which means that you only eat one, as a starter, in combination with smoked salmon, pieces of onion, smetana cream and little eggs of a fish.
I should also write about one of the most incredible and fascinating invention of food in the whole wide world: Mämmi, which is eaten traditionally around Easter and can be found during that period in some supermarkets. Only people with a lot of time can afford to make this at home, as it take many hours to create this fermented rye malt. I need to be honest at this point: I don’t know any food which has so many resemblances to shit, but once passed this hurtle, I liked it a lot. The cook of the Italian embassy in Helsinki felt in love at first sight (?) with the dark brown mush, and created a fan-club and mämmi organisation, and finally published a book about it.
Probably the biggest treasure of Finland is the pure clean water they have in their many lakes. A pretty wasted Finn accompanied by a clearly paid lady, I once met in a Russian restaurant in Helskini, offered me some shots of vodka, where after he asked me if I have ever tasted the best water in the world. He asked the waitress to bring me a jug of water and after tasting it and agreeing that I have never drunk so pure water, they told me this was tap water, as every citizen in Helsinki can drink. Unbelievable! About wine that I like, there's almost nothing to say, as you can't find much in Alko, the state's monopoly and distributor for consumers. I read somewhere that there is a 30% increase in sales of organic wines compared to last year, whatever it means...
*Sasu: I’ll take credit for this line and I hope you are aware of the European laws about copyrights
Speaking about copyrights: thanks to Phil Schwarzmann for a big inside into Finnish society, through ‘How to marry a Finnish girl’