Finnish cuisine? No, I hadn’t heard of it either, but food was the unexpected highlight of our trip to Helsinki, an eclectic mix of local ingredients and impeccable Scandinavian design. There seem to have been two consequences from the unpromising combination of harsh northern climate and decades of trade embargos. First, the need to use whatever local ingredients are available: fresh and seasonal if possible, or preserved if not. And second, a willingness to experiment with different combinations of taste and colour and texture.
We started our culinary journey at the bustling harbour market, where fresh fish and vegetables are landed daily. We lingered at stalls selling freshly smoked Baltic herring and all manner of reindeer meats, as well as at fur stalls, with coats, hats and purses made from the skins of deer and elks; no part of the animal can be wasted here. In the covered market we found preserved mushrooms and cranberries, jars of cloudberry jam and dried reindeer sausages. And there were stalls everywhere selling the famous Karelian pasties.
A whole variety of reindeer and other meat products
We sat down to a lunch of crispy whitebait and fried potatoes as the seagulls screeched overhead. Later the market started to clear away and we strolled over to the other side of the harbour to listen to folk singers in stripy blue and white jerseys. We stopped for ice cream: my scoop of salty liquorice was heavenly. My husband’s cloudberry ice cream was probably equally delicious but unfortunately it was carried off by a seagull before he had a chance to try it!
You can find Karelian pasties and other pastries everywhere
Local Ingredients at Savotta
In the evening we headed off to Savotta, a stylish restaurant opposite the Cathedral. You have to descend the stairs to a cellar here, a reminder that everyone moves underground in the long Finnish winter. Although it was the middle of June, the rosy tints and subdued lighting made us forget the midnight sun outside, and we squinted to read the menu that was presented to us on big wooden boards.
Savotta’s boast is that it only uses local ingredients and so the menu features reindeer tongue and bear meat, as well as red onion marmalade and the ever-present pickles. I started with a creamy morel soup with a side dish of sauerkraut pie and thick slices of coarse black bread, while my husband had Finnish fish soup, a concoction of whitefish, arctic char and perch with onions and vegetables. The main courses arrived attractively arranged on wooden platters. The ‘forest foreman’s skewer’ was a steaming kebab of reindeer fillet and elk sausage, and my pancake with ceps and onion came with marinated cucumber and colourful root vegetables glazed in honey.
Savotta is the restaurant of choice for the locals and by now it was filling up. We hadn’t booked in advance and had been squeezed in on the understanding that we would leave by eight o’clock. So we reluctantly had to forego the dessert, which was a pity as I could have done justice to Sisu ice-cream or Apple panna cotta. By way of consolation the serving staff gave us small boxes of liquorice mints to take away as we headed off in search of cake and berry liqueurs.
(Savotta is one of a chain of six restaurants in the Helsinki area, each with its own speciality. Saslik serves traditional Russian cuisine, and Saaga concentrates on dishes from Lapland, with an emphasis upon bear meat, mushrooms and berries. Savu’s menu consists entirely of smoke-cured meals, while the island based Saari and Saaristo serve fish and contemporary Scandinavian cooking.)
Cured meats play a large part in the Finnish diet
Unfortunately there was no time to try all of these; they would have to wait for another time. And a search of the Web suggests that Finnish restaurants in the UK are few and far between. However, there is always the Scandinavian Kitchen in London, with its café and supplies of ingredients including my favourite salty liquorice.