At the tail end of February we spent a long weekend visiting friends in Helsinki who had moved there from London seeking a different pace of life. Our time in Vuosaari, their local neighbourhood in east Helsinki, was spent sampling Scandinavian tapas, drinking cloudberry craft beer and taking sauna before plunging into the icy sea.
So much has been made of nordic food and lifestyle in recent years; from making your home ‘hygge’ to news stories about live ants and norovirus at Copenhagen’s famed Noma. However, Finland is relatively late to the spotlight – more favoured as a pristine ski destination than a culinary hub. The main differences that I noticed to other Scandi capitals in terms of food culture during our short stay included the lack of a large produce market (the main wholesalers are accessible only to the food trade via license) and a national obsession with dairy products, which pervaded home cooking and snacks right through to the progressive restaurant scene.
Some tips and reflections on our stay in Helsinki:
Soup – a national favourite and something done incredibly well. Walking into shopping centres and food courts we were often hit by the persistent aroma of the classic salmon soup, bulked with potatoes and sweetened with red onion.
More exciting discoveries included the local bouillabaisse, lighter than its French cousin and made perfect by accompaniments of dill oil and creme fraiche. Also brilliant were winter root veg specials of Jerusalem artichoke, enjoyed at the Unesco world heritage island Suomenlinna, and cream of salsify at the old market near the central harbour.
This brilliant department store had to make up for the lack of a truly comprehensive city produce market. Our schedule was quite tightly packed with sights to see and rather than doing any proper ‘cooking’ to thank our hosts for showing us around, I opted instead to prepare a tasting board of interesting Finnish goodies. This included Reindeer salami, cold-smoked herring, salmon roe and a salad of striped beetroot and kohlrabi with a cider, mustard dressing.
Where there is good soup, you would hope to find good bread. The bakeries and shops of Helsinki were full of it from vegetable buns and sweet treats such as cardamon cakes (pullas!) through to wholesome rye and reindeer filled Karelian pies.
Our final night in Helsinki was spent at the wonderful restaurant, Juuri. Offering a mix of small plates, main courses, cocktails and desserts, I would highly recommend this for a taste of old meets new.
We opted for a ‘best value’ strategy of ordering the entire ‘sapas’ menu for four people and doubling up on the fish dishes. This, with the complimentary bread platter from their own bakery, some petit fours and a dessert special, made for the perfect experience.
Our night at Juuri was a potent reminder of the beautiful Finnish larder including burbot, sea trout, pheasant, beef, artichokes and sea buckthorn. In the hands of this kitchen these ingredients were choreographed to dance, cutting through the white silence and slow drifting ice of the Finnish winter.
A final note must be directed towards the economics of a visit to Helsinki. A welfare state so progressive it is rivalled by no other means that the cost of luxuries such as eating and drinking are strikingly high. A round of drinks for four regularly pushed the €30 mark and a single main course of fish or meat would cost the same in any reputable restaurant.
We combined our eating out with cosy evenings in at home to watch classic Finnish documentaries (‘Miesten Vuoro’ – or ‘Steam of Life’ – directed by Joonas Berghall and Mika Hotakainen is a must watch), but if your desire is to hit the city centre every night of your stay, make sure you budget accordingly.