Are You Gonna Finnish That?
The moment that the rise of Scandinavian food really crystallized as “a thing” can be pretty easily pinpointed to the day—just a hair over two years ago—when Noma, the Nordic brainchild of René Redzepi and Claus Meyer, unseated El Bulli as the number one pick on Restaurant magazine’s annual “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List.”
That same year Marcus Samuelsson, who was already an incredible culinary success, also happened to redefine what a Swedish Chef was to the wide demographic of casual and fervent food fans that watch the Food Nework, when he won the first season of Top Chef Masters. The coolly handsome Ethiopian-born Swede is a far cry from the bork-bork-borking meatball-maker that most North Americans probably associate with Scandinavian cooking.
With the Scandinavian Peninsula and Danish islands now clearly and popularly in the public consciousness here in North America, it only makes sense that food media is paying regular attention. The New York Times was on top of it late last year, this month’s Bon Appetit features a piece on Smørrebrød, and—obviously—I just went to Finland and am now officially in love with their food culture.
Before this month, I had never been to any Nordic countries. And while most of the spotlight is on Sweden and Denmark, on this spur-of-the-moment trip with two wonderful friends, we visited Helsinki. I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with Scandinavian cuisine, but also didn’t know the intricacies of food culture in this city where Swedish and Russian culture collide with a uniquely Finnish sensibility.
Helsinki is, in many ways, not unlike Halifax. I felt very at home there almost instantly. It’s a smallish capital city with a little over a half-million residents. An incredibly walkable city—from the waterfront to lush parks with airy monuments and large cathedrals with beautifully carved statues reaching to the heavens from lofty rooftops—the salty waterfronts, towering cruise ships and seemingly rootless buskers really reminded me of home.
And as in Halifax, local food is clearly embedded in the way of life in Helsinki. There is something wild about the harvest in Helsinki, though, that makes agriculture in Nova Scotia seem bridled and tame. Rooted in hunting and gathering, foraging and fishing—reindeer, fish, berries and mushrooms feature heavily on menus—there is something sensual about the simplicity of the diet. Strangely enough, that easiness brings the Italian approach to cooking to mind, though the flavour landscape is different—slightly gamey or smoky meats, malty rye, tart berries, earthy potatoes, turnips and mushrooms and bitter dill.
There are several open-air markets in the city, the most notable being the Market Square, which also conveniently has the Old Market Hall just a few steps away. The scent of roasting reindeer sausages and meatballs, deep fried fish and dilly potatoes permeates the air. Seagulls squawk and boldly walk the length of the pier, smugly picking up dropped herring and staking their claim on leftovers from the heaping plates of food. It’s a beautiful experience.
Also beautiful: the seafood. It’s hard to top the various preparations of reindeer I ate, but from pickled herring and gravlax that helped made up deliciously savory breakfasts, to crayfish and shrimp that made for pert open-faced sandwiches, and to the rainbow of roe available at markets and piled on tasty hors d’oeuvres, I was in sea-salt heaven. Salmon, ciscoes, vendace and perch: so many delicious fishes. Whether it was smoked, whipped into a creamy mousse or simply pan-fried, it was all pretty perfect.
There are a lot of other wonderful foods, though. The karjalanpiirakka, or Karelian pasty, was the first Finnish delicacy I tried upon arriving in Helsinki, and it was love at first bite. A thin, toothsome rye crust filled with a mild rice pudding, it is the perfect snack. Leipäjuusto, or bread cheese is another perfect snack. Slightly charred, and with the same satisfying squeak against the teeth as your standard issue cheese curd, it’s especially good with a dollop of cloudberry jelly. Bold, buttery Esrom cheese was another fond discovery, delicious with crisp flat bread or the dense rye that populates bread baskets in Finland.
As recently as ten years ago Finland was roundly made fun of by European leaders, its food the subject of punchlines. I had nothing but delicious food in Helsinki, and even in the simplicity of the food I ate, I found adventure. From the clean, salty richness of air-dried reindeer heart to the sprightly crispness of raw turnip and the smoky tickle of Terva—pine tar!—flavours, there was a lot to be excited about.
Terva is unique, and as such it was very exciting to me. I explored this flavour in ice cream. (Let it be known: I will explore pretty much any flavour in ice cream. I also had some delicious nougat ice cream and some incredible, amazing, life-altering popcorn-flavoured ice cream in Helsinki.) I assumed at first taste that the terva ice cream was simply a molasses flavour. (Confidential to Chives: you should totally make a molasses ice cream! I could start and end my meal with molasses! That would make me so happy! Do it! Do it!) But while the flavour of the ice cream was originally that deep, sweet burnt caramel taste, the aftertaste of the ice cream was a smoky chemical taste that immediately brought to mind the moment you stand down-wind and too close to a bonfire, and get a mouth full of slightly acrid smoke. It’s weird. Good, but weird.
Also good, but weird? An insane, spontaneous mix of a licorice-flavoured alcohol—Salmiakki Koskenkorva, I think?—and Lakka cloudberry liqueur one night after my friends and I gorged ourselves on a market-bought picnic of cold-smoked reindeer, trout roe, creme fraiche, blini, bread cheese and actual bread-bread. One is wildly astringent and the other intensely sweet. It was… not bad. Surprisingly. I couldn’t drink the Salmiakki on its own, for sure, and this was a sort of happy medium that made for a complex and, yes, challenging cocktail. Our mixing skills (1 + 1 = huh?) were definitely pretty shabby compared to what I found around town in the insanely expensive cocktail lounges at places like Hotel Kämp and Hotel GLO, where I was staying. With ingredients like cloudberry liqueur and lingonberry preserve, each cocktail was a fun new discovery. My favourite drink was Koskenkorva on its own, though, with a few bitter cranberries. This was the “Reindeer’s Tear,” found at Lappi Ravintola. An incredibly delicious aperitif that I hope to recreate at home with my now-treasured imported bottle of the Finnish spirit.
Perhaps my fondest memory of Finland—and there are many fond memories of food and friends and Finnish particulars—is my meal at Kuurna. A tiny restaurant, with vaulted ceilings that keep the small space from feeling claustrophobic, Kuurna has a fixed-price menu with 3 simple courses. They focus on using local, seasonal ingredients, and let them shine in their simplicity. It’s intimate and relaxed, and the small staff made us feel very at home. Each dish was an experience in silky, crisp, buttery or tart flavours, meat and fish cooked to perfection, salty notes accenting the freshness of each ingredient. It was all of the things about Helsinki’s food that I had come to love over a week at their best. It was a perfect way to end the trip.
Except I ended the trip at a place called Beefy Queen. Which, let’s be honest, is really the perfect way to end a trip.