Elegant and trendy – Helsinki wears both well, as this harbourside capital of Finland caters to a smorgasbord of interests. The culturally-curious, design and architecture nerds, snow-bunnies who seek cross-country skiing and ice–swimming, and gourmands, are amply provided for.
REINDEER, SALMON & BERRIES
Liisa Eskelinen, who founded Day With A Local, a company offering Helsinki experiences with insiders, says, “Traditionally, Finnish cuisine has consisted of different kinds of fish and meats, potatoes, wild berries, mushrooms and rye bread.”
The Sami are the indigenous inhabitants of the Nordic regions and, locally, mainly occupy the northern part of Finland. Reindeer husbandry has always been a vital part of their culture, as has ice fishing. Reindeer stews and fillet with lingonberry sauce (there’s an affinity for sweet and savoury across Finland) and glow-fried salmon – grilled over a long period, suspended close to a fire - are must-eats in Lapland, in my experience. But you can easily sample reindeer, salmon and a wide variety of fish in Helsinki, also prepared in ways to honour the Sami and Finnish culinary traditions.
Fresh and cured reindeer meats, smoked or salted salmon, fish layered and baked into hollowed-out bread known as “fish pies”, fried vendace (small white fish) and the berries native to Lapland can be found at covered market halls and the swanky food hall at Stockmann, Finland’s oldest department store.
The gorgeous Old Market Hall (Vanha Kauppanhalli) built in 1888 is utterly modern inside but no less charming. Here, locals purchase cheese, meats, fish, bread and pastry and dine at the casual canteens and cafés. Karelian rye-flour pies, and speciality buns for religious holidays, as well as cardamom-flavoured “butter eye” buns called pulla, are items you shouldn’t miss. The bread cheese, a squeaky sort like halloumi, with a grilled surface, is topped with golden cloudberry preserve and you can try it here. If berries like bilberry, lingonberry and tart sea buckthorn aren’t in season (the “every man’s right” allows Finns to forage for berries and mushrooms fairly freely), look out for the berry bars by Arctic Superfoods in some delis.
For a taste of the Finnish classics in upmarket surrounds, Savoy, with grand views of the city is highly recommended. In summer, the neighbouring islands offer quick breakaways by ferry. Try the crayfish menu at Särkänlinna, a fort on Särkkä Island.
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Esa Huttu, a chef at 18-seater SPIS serving “pure Nordic” food, close to Market Square, says, “Nowadays the trend is having more focus on vegetables and sustainable food. There are also some regional differences and you can clearly see the influences both from the west (Sweden) and the east (Russia).” Eskelinen adds, “Our everyday food has a lot of influence from other cultures - Asian, Italian, French and American are all present.” At SPIS, I opt for the vegetarian menu paired with natural wines to try Finnish produce of the moment – it proves a swift antidote to the tired “meat and potato” reputation that Finland may still harbour.
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Sopas or tapas are also very popular and done with finesse and modern flair at Juuri. It’s hard not to pick all of them and forgo the mains. Think seasonal, delicate trout, celeriac, perch with cabbage and lamb with goat’s cheese. While the Finns have a long history of traditional rye bread-making, contemporary versions can be lighter. The bread-course and one-star Michelin Olo draws legions of fans. And sweet malt-infused Archipelago bread is excellent at breakfast and with coffee.
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COFFEE, BREAKFAST, BRUNCH & BEER
Speaking of which, several studies show that at 12 kg per annum per person, Finns consume the most coffee (kahvi) per capita of any nation. It’s evident in the number of coffee shops city-wide. Chef Huttu recommends Good Life Coffee and Kaffa Roastery.
Locals are also fond of brussi or brunch. The breakfast and brunch spread at boutique Hotel Haven is a showcase of Finnish seasonal produce and Sandro (Kortelli branch) offers a sublime Sunday Moroccan buffet.
Urho Kekkosen katu 1
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Finns are big on porridge and I go to Kuppi & Muffini with tour guide Heather Domeney of Fork in Hand where the porridge changes daily (I try rye with soya milk) and you administer your own toppings – even chilli flakes, if you prefer. For dairy lovers, you’ve got to try viili, even if just once – the ropy, viscous Finnish yogurt available in supermarkets. Domeney says Finns can eat lunch as early as 11: 00AM.
Kuppi & Muffini
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At Bryggeri, over craft beers and a winning sausage – here the sauna society are the judges, which in a sauna-obsessed culture makes sense – Domeney discusses Finnish food culture and the dramatic changes in the contemporary landscape in recent years. The tourist office has even created a map zoned into five foodie-themed regions for tourists to enjoy. “Helsinki is great combination of old meeting new and chefs being adventurous with the traditional Finnish cuisine,” she adds.