Monday, 1 July 2013

This Little Piggy Went to Market - Helsinki Edition

There are three main markets halls with adjoining squares in Helsinki; Hietalahti Kauppahalli, Hakaniemi Kauppahalli and Wanha Kauppahalli. As well as two of them having confusingly similar names, the third, Wanha Kauppahalli, was closed for refurbishment, meaning many of the traders had moved to Hietalahti Kauppahalli in the interim.

If you've managed to follow all this so far then you've done better than me, but, as I'm sure you now know, it takes more than just poor map reading skills and general confusion to keep me from my lunch. So, following the smell of grilling fish and hot coffee on the breeze (ok, the Ewing got hold of the map and navigated), we headed off on our great market mission.

Our first stop was Market Square, the oldest and most famous of these trio of markets. While the Old Market Hall, open since 1889 may have been closed for refurbishment, the open Market Square was still busily thronging with tourists and locals alike.

Despite having only recently dispatched breakfast I made a beeline for Helsingin Toripojat (Market Boys of Helsinki), the familiar orange-roofed coffee stall, open all year round and famous for the 'best meat pies in Finland', as well as being frequented by many politicians, including the Finnish prime minister himself. There's also a gallery of previous visitors on their web site, a varied selection including Lyndon B. Johnson, Billy Graham, Queen Juliana and George Bush.

We tried one of their renowned meat pies with our coffee, rather like a Cornish pasty filling inside a fried yeast doughnut and perfect for soaking up the excesses of a heavy night before. The cardamom-spiked butter bun was pillowy soft and spicy, and the Ewing made short work of her slice of sweet and sour rhubarb pie.

Finland is well known as a peaceable and safe country, but one great danger we soon discovered was the menacing gulls that stalked around the harbour side and beaches. These great beady-eyed birds think very little of swooping down to grab the ice cream cone from your hand or the last morsel from your plate. There is a small amount of ineffectual netting, but my best advice is to eat quickly with one eye on the sky, or try and stand close to one of these guys.

The Finns go mad for local fresh berries and vegetables in the summer, and most of the stalls were groaning under the weight of giant spring onions, tiny new potatoes, punnets of plump strawberries and blueberries and the first of the chanterelle mushrooms.

One of the most popular foodstuffs found in the summer months are herne, or fresh green peas. While I'm sure a few make it home for the pot, most of the people we saw were soon splitting their booty with a thumbnail and munching the little green globes straight from the pod.

The Ewing was quick to find her favourite pea purveyor at the market - although you can buy them all over town, including stalls by the yacht harbour and on the main shopping streets - and we ate handfuls of the sweet juicy legumes (pretty much literally) morning noon and night for the rest of our trip.

While the Old Market Square is located on the South Harbour, Hietalahti Market can be found just off the West Harbour. The marketplace outside hosts a popular flea market, everyday in summer, as well as the the ubiquitous stalls offering coffee, buns and ice cream. The adjacent market hall originally offered groceries, then antiques and art, and now, due to the current refurbishments at the Old Market Hall, offers gourmet food and a series of 'pop-up' restaurants.

Inside was an oasis of cool and calm, and made a pleasing contrast to the heat and bustle outside. This is not a gritty and noisy market, but it does have it's own refined charm and laid-back friendliness that seems to match the Finnish demeanour. 

Despite the late hour of our visit, there were still many locals enjoying bowls of soups, steak burgers, coffee and shrimp sandwiches from the various counters dotted about inside and, after a couple of laps trying to take everything in, we decided to join them.

The most impressive and tempting stall was the fishmongers/seafood deli at the back, which also offered an oyster bar and fresh homemade sushi, rolled there in front of you. We decided to stick with the Nordic classics, and our lunch comprised of a collection of fishy snacks chosen from the cabinet and enjoyed sitting at the counter with a couple of cold lagers.

We enjoyed a selection of thick curls of hot smoked salmon, studded with black pepper; pan fried, buttery Arctic char with a honey mustard sauce and dill; and a delicate carpaccio of whitefish with pink peppercorns on rye bread. 

The tiny vendace, a Northern European river fish appearing on most menus in the city, were something I was very keen to try. They didn't disappoint; the light rye crumb coating giving bite to the sweet, silvery flesh. And the huge portion made the perfect beer food to munch while watching the world go by.

The final stop on our tour was over the bridge to Hakaniemi, to the North of Helsinki city centre. This, previously working class, area has slowly become the place to be, with the hipsters and house prices to match. It's still a liberal place, with cheap bars, strip clubs and the headquarters of the Social Democrat and Left Alliance parties and several trade unions, and is the best area to eat Asian food and start a night on the town.

It's also the home of a large, thriving market which has been on this spot since 1894, with the Market hall next door being built thirty years later. After being fleeced 10 Euros for a (admittedly rather large, and very nice) punnet of blueberries, we quickly hurried across the cobbles to try and find a bargain inside. 

Although it's in an 'earthy' neighbourhood, don't expect things to go for a song; the Finns are not built to haggle. While this makes for a pleasant and refined atmosphere, it can also lead to paying 9 Euros for a slice of cake (luckily I convinced the Ewing, despite the cake being a mile-high glazed chocolate number, to stick with the extortionate blueberries instead).

Upstairs is a veritable treasure trove of knick knacks, walking about that felt rather like poking around my Nan's house when I was a child. Skeins of wool, wooden butter knives, glass bottles, straw hats and stuffed toys are crammed into every conceivable space and everything has a rather old fashioned and timeless kind of feel.

Sadly the prices very much reflect these modern times, although the Ewing did pick up a rather nice black and white Moomin print. For those with deep pockets who admire classic Finnish design there is a large Marimekko stall selling their distinctive patterned trays, bags, tableware and rolls of bright material.

The lower floor is filled with many butchers and bakers (sadly no candlestick makers) as well as fresh veg, coffee, chocolates and imported goods. But again it was the fish stall that most appealed, offering a great selection of lunch plates, pies, open sandwiches and sweet cakes as well as this intriguing 'Nordic mussel selection' on the counter.

Along with the familiar Karelian rice pastries they also had some seafood versions, including a slightly fearsome looking version stuffed with silvery sprats. We played it safe and shared a warm salmon pie and cups of black coffee to begin our lunch.

To follow, a plate of Jansson's temptation with salad. This popular Scandinavian dish features a mixture of chipped potatoes baked with cream and sprats or anchovies. Often eaten at Christmas time, this made a fine, and filling, summer lunch. The sweet, malty rye bread and creamy butter alongside finished things off nicely.

After successfully navigating the beautiful display of cakes with the eye-watering prices, we visited the cheese stall to buy some of the famous Leipajuusto, a cooked, 'squeaky' cheese, which is eaten with cloudberry jam or cream or dipped in coffee. After finding out about the various different types; goat or cows milk, 'normal' low salt or gluten free; we carefully took our slice back home, where it remains, uneaten, in the fridge of our Finnish apartment (alongside our jar of cloudberry jam). Oh well, perhaps the next guests might get to enjoy it.

Despite all the fancy imported produce vying with the local stuff, big bunches of dried birch leaves, used to increase blood flow after a visit to the sauna, leave you in no doubt that this is still Finland. And, after being lucky enough to visit these splendid markets, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

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