Thursday, 11 July 2013

Coffee and Candy, Finnish Style

Finnish food has been much maligned, most notably by the charming Silvio Berlusconi who claimed, 'The Finns don't even know what Parma ham is' and that the country had the worst food in Europe (with Britain's grub apparently deserving of second place in the inedible stakes).

While it's true that Finland has long and harsh winters - meaning fruit and vegetables were only freely available in the short summer months and leading to a reliance on grains, fermented milk products, smoked and salted food - this simplicity and lack of choice has also seen a fresh, local (imports that competed with local products were banned before they joined the EU) and simple cuisine develop.

With a variety of Swedish, Russian and German influences and ingredients such as rye, dairy, fish mushrooms, berries and game all featuring heavily, it may be simple but it's far from boring. 

With over 180,000 lakes and an extensive coastline, it is no surprise that fish is to be found on many menus in Finland. And where better to find some than at Ravintola Salve, a sailors' tavern originally set up to sell beer and cigarettes, that has been serving sailors at Helsinki's West harbour for over 120 years.

Although there maybe a distinct lack of seafarers making up their clientele now days, they still sell herrings, salmon and pike perch, alongside rib sticking meaty fare, such as steak stuffed with cheese and smoked reindeer, and Salve's stir fry, an old sailor favourite of breaded pork, fried egg, sausage and potatoes.

I chose the famous Baltic herrings, a whole shoal of fried fished atop a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. Baltic herrings are smaller and less fatty than their Atlantic cousins, and can be eaten whole, bones and all. These were delicious, hot and crisp and, mindful of the predatory gulls swooping about and not wanting to share, I soon woolfed them down.

The Ewing's rye covered perch fillets came with yet more buttery mash, and a Pepto Bismol-hued beetroot hollandaise. Despite its rather alarming pink colour, the earthy, creamy notes matched well with the clean sweet fillets. During our trip we ate several rye breaded fish dishes and the nutty, slightly sour grains made a crisp and greaseless coating.

The Finns are, by some distance, the world's largest consumers of coffee, drinking over 12kg per person a year. Pulla (or buns), are a common accompaniment to go with their caffeine kick, with Korvapuusti (or 'slapped elephant ears'), a cinnamon and cardamom spiked pastry; voisilm├Ąpulla (butter buns), with their spiced dough and sugary topping; and Weinerbrod (Vienna bread, the Scandinavian name for what we know as Danish pastries) being the most common.

They also enjoy Karelian pasties, a crimped rye dough filled with a rice pudding, or sometimes potato, and served warm with  a mixture chopped hard boiled eggs and butter. Although rather beautiful to look at, the Ewing was far from impressed by the rather dry pastry and stodgy filling and, while we did eat ours cold and sans butter, I have to agree they may be an acquired taste I haven't yet developed.

Finding the, utterly charming, Cafe Regatta felt a bit like being in a film where the hopelessly lost and bedraggled adventurers are minutes from perishing, when the mist finally lifts and they can see the way home right in front of them. That may sound like my typical melodrama, but after hours of tramping through woods and graveyards (on the plus side, we did see a red squirrel) with the only stops being to soak our blistered feet in the lake, both of us were about ready to chuck in the towel.

Pursading the Ewing that we were too near the Sibellius monument to turn back, and knowing there was a coffee and bun stop near by, we limped on through a small piece of grassland. There, as if by magic, not only did we see the monument glinting in the late afternoon sun but, just across the water, stood cafe Regatta. 

If you find yourself in Finland then a visit to this place is a must. It really is like something from a fairytale. Inside is tiny, dark and cosy, the perfect place to hole up on those famous Finnish winters, but for a bright summer's afternoon the only place to be was out by the water.

As well as offering stunning viewsthere is also a wood fired barbecue pit available to use, with logs provided to burn, and sausages and bread available from the cafe. And, unusually for most places here, it's open almost everyday for your bun and coffee fix.

With the sweet and spicy smells floating from the kitchen and over the water I was powerless to resist their freshly baked  Korvapuusti, This was one of the best, if not the best, cinnamon buns I have had the pleasure of eating. It may had something to do with the beautiful view, it may have been the laid back Nordic charm, but sitting there eating the flaky, buttery pastry washed down with strong black coffee was one of the most pleasurable things I can remember for a long time.

The Ewing chose the blueberry pie, which she was initially too grumpy to even try, telling me to eat it and wrap up the cinnamon bun to take back home. My reaction after the first bite caused her to quickly reconsider, and after trying some for herself I didn't get a chance to eat a second forkful. Just like the bun this was a masterful piece of baking; a rich almond-scented sponge studded with inky sweet/sour berries. Cream was on offer, but this was just perfect unadorned.

With our hunger sated and finally feeling relaxed, we walked across the grass to check out the Sibelius monument; a hulking mass of hollow steel tubes - to appease the purists there is also a effigy of the composer himself next to the main piece - designed by sculptor Eila Hiltunen, and intended to represent the pipes of an organ. It looked really rather lovely, sparkling in the light of the slowly setting sun.  

Karl Fazer is the forefather of Finnish confectionery; with his wife he originally opened a French-Russian inspired cafe in Helsinki, and later expanded to open a chocolate and candy factory that now makes some of the Finns most loved sweets.

The cafe, opened in 1891, is still in its original spot on Kluuvikatu, a wide, paved street right in the heart of the city. Having survived for at least an hour or so without sustenance, the Ewing and I decided to visit for some civilised afternoon cakes and coffee.

Inside is a sweet-toothed dream. A large, mirrored picture of Mr Fazer himself looks out over huge bins of colourful sweets and chocolates, while boxes of jellies, cakes and sweet morsels are stacked up on huge marble tables. The right hand side features a shop with home baked bread, chocolate truffles and fancy gateaux; while the right hand side is a cafe offering soup, salads sandwiches, cakes, coffee and ice cream sundaes.

We tried a couple of majestic looking slices of cake with our coffee, a multi layered strawberry and cream gateaux, coated in a layer of green marzipan; and an incredible chocolate and passionfruit sponge, topped with layers of sweet mousse and sharp jelly, encased in a rich, bitter ganache. One of the finest sweet treats I have enjoyed in a while. 

I also went rather overboard stocking up on various chocolate bars and candies to sample. As well as the iconic 'Fazerin Sininen', or Fazer Blue milk chocolate bar, we tried, among others, the famous Marianne mint boiled sweets with a chocolate filling; slabs of Fazer chocolate with both liquorice comfits and pear and almonds; Moomin truffle bars with a strawberry yoghurt; the De Capo, the first bar made by Fazer and originally comprising of mis-shapen chocolates that had been remoulded (the name means start again) with added rum; Jim, with its chocolate covered 'marmalade foam' centre; the classic Fazermint chcolate creams; the wafer based bars Suffeli and Kissmet; and the nutty praline fillings of Geisha and Fami.

As well as the Fazer bars we also tried the famous Tupla Maxi, made by Leaf, a kind of Finnish Mars Bar with almond pieces; and the Brudberg Risi, with its chocolate covered puffed rice. I was particularly taken by the colours of the different bars, with a mixture of unusual pastel pinks, browns and oranges vying with the more familiar black, reds and golds.

I couldn't write about Finish sweets without mentioning their most famous candy; salmiakki, or salty liquorice. The liquorice is flavoured with ammonium chloride, which gives it an astringent and tongue numbing quality which is rather an acquired taste.

Although recently I have been making steps with anise flavours, and have even been able to eat liquorice without wincing, this stuff is hardcore. Not only do you get the regular salty varieties, there are also Tyrkisk Peber boiled sweets with a spicy edge, terva salmiakki with the addition of tar (yes, the stuff used on the roads, and really rather odd tasting) and super slamiakki, when regular strength just isn't overwhelming enough.

Despite not being accustomed to the flavour of the 'stingy' sweets, I was enchanted by the packaging. The Fazer salmiakki comes in a black and white chequer board design (salmiakki means diamond) with touches of red, the super salmiakki has a great, retro 60s look and the panterri (or panther) sugar-coated gummis are decorated with green and yellow pictures of the eponymous big cats.

If you want a drink with a view then Ateljee Bar, Helsinki s best known and most dramatic drinking spot, is based on the roof of the Hotel Torni is the place to head. Originally founded in 1951, and spruced up a few years ago, this is the best place in town to enjoy a sundowner or late night tipple.

A warning for those unsteady on their pins or scared of heights, the lift only goes as as far as the 12th floor, and the remaining two floors must be scaled via a narrow and winding spiral staircase, but, if you can, getting up there is well worth it. The rooftop terrace offers panoramic views of Helsinki and beyond and the day we visited was blessed with crystal clear skies that allowed us to see out for miles.

After sinking our first round of frozen strawberry tequila, and elderflower and gin cocktails, we chose a duo of ice cold mojitos to follow. I had the classic, heavy on the mint and zingy with fresh lime wile the Ewing chose the shocking pink and very refreshing raspberry version.

Drinks aren't quite as expensive as you might fear, at around 10-15 Euros for a cocktail, and the quality and flavours are spot on. If you're not in the mood for alcohol, then coffee and soft drinks can be ordered all day, too. With a typically chilled Nordic atmosphere and unbeatable views it's certainly worth trying to make it up here for at least one bevvy if you're in town.

No shopping trip to Helsinki would be complete without a visit to the flagship Stockmann department store, the biggest in Scandinavia. This Finnish company, started by a German, celebrated 150 years in 2012 and now has shops in 15 countries.

While the shop spreads over eight floors, taking up a whole block in the city centre, we headed straight down to Stockmannin Herkku, their famed food and drink hall located in the basement.

A foodies heaven, Stockmanns is like a Nordic Selfridges or Harrods, with the prices to match. While I was impressed by one of the best stocked (and smelliest) cheese counters, with samples from all over Europe, and could have stayed all day browsing the imported teas and coffees, I was really here for the local produce.

From the piles of baby new potatoes and fronds of fresh dill, yellow cherry tomatoes and bright stalks of rhubarb in the entrance, past the cardamom scented pastries being house made in the bakery and the fridges full of Villi (a 'strechy' milk desert) and Arctic yogurt, finally ending up at the biggest fish counter I have ever seen, with huge sides of salmon piled on ice, heaps of various different multicoloured fish roes and whole smoked fish the colour of leather; this is a Finnish food paradise.

Of course, even at this far North, a branch of the ubiquitous Mc Donlads is only just around the corner. After a beer or two I couldn't help being lured in by the idea of a ruis burger (a McTasty on a rye bread bun) and a liquorice Mcflurry. I enjoyed the burger, although most of the filling seemed to end up in my lap, but the Ewing had to finish the Finnish McFlurry as, sadly, I wasn't really lovin' it.

In retort to Berlusconi's jibes and showing their Finnish sense of humour pizza chain Kotipizza named their award-winning smoked reindeer and chanterelle mushroom pizza after the Italian prime minister.

Of course, I had to try it and managed to drag a surprisingly compliant Ewing to the nearest branch to our apartment. Along with the Berlusconi, with a 'healthy' rye base, we also braved their burger pizza, complete with a topping of iceberg and special sauce. 

Although it wasn't classy, the burger-topped effort was actually rather good; while the idea of hot lettuce seemed a bit grim, it managed to stay fresh and crunchy, and best of all processed cheese replaced the mozzarella, giving it that authentic, gooey finishing touch. The Berlusconi was also good, albeit far more traditional; the slightly gamey meat and woody mushrooms working well with the nuttiness of the rye base.

A trip to Finland wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Alko. The Finns are known for their love of a beverage and, like the other Scandinavian nations except Denmark, they have to buy any alcoholic beverage above 4.8% from a state operated off license. Unlike the image the name may conjure up, these Alkos are sleek and modern, looking rather like an airport duty free.

In keeping with their reputation for being a bit different, the choice of booze on offer goes much further than just beer and wine.  While internationally they are renowned for Finalndia vodka, in Finland the most common clear spirit is Koskenkorva Viina; a clear grain spirit with a small amount of added sugar. A favourite beverage with the younger crowd is Koskenkorva with added salmiakki liquorice candy, a potent sounding combination. Minttu, a peppermint flavoured schnapps 'from the Finnish Himalayas', is also popular as a frozen shot or as an addition to hot chocolate in the winter.

Something we saw many people drinking was the lonkero, or long drink. Literally translating as 'tentacle', this premixed gin and grapefruit cocktail was introduced during the Helsinki Olympics in 1952. Fearing foreign alcohol imports, the Finnish government relaxed their strict rules for all the visitors to the country. They proved so popular that liberalisation of liquor laws soon followed, and you can now find them in many different flavours everywhere you go.

Of course, beer still reigns supreme, with popular brands being Lapin Kuta, from the Arctic Circle, Koff, Karhu and Olvi. A cold can of the latter's export lager being the perfect accompaniment for our sunny picnic on the sea fortress island of Suomenlinna. A nice brew with a fantastic view.

After all that beer there is no where better than Helsinki's legendary Jaskan Grilli, a tiny metal hut  behind the Finnish parliament building that has even made it into the pages of the NY Times. Here, in this anonymous little square, you can find a who's who of famous Finns queuing up for their grease-laden snacks late into the night. Here is the place to see fights, romance and Finnish fast food, all washed down with litres of ice cold milk.

The menu is beautifully written in calligraphy script, and was, unsurprisingly, completely in Finnish. The only two words that looked remotely familiar are the famous 'Kannibal' and 'hot dog'. We ordered one each from the, rather stern looking, lady inside, who looked like she was well used to dealing with all comers at any time of the day or night, and watched her move about deftly in the cramped kitchen, preparing our food while avoiding the two giant squeezy bottles of ketchup and mustard that swung from the tin roof.

After the excitement of their preparation we retreated to the rusted and makeshift tables and chairs next door to sample our 'snacks', the queue of middle aged, and mostly sober, men growing by the minute behind us, despite the relatively early hour.

The Kannibal was certainly a sight to behold; a behemoth of sliced ham, ground beef, a burger patty, two huge pieces of spam-like meat and a fried egg, buried underneath every topping conceivable, including crumbled blue cheese, pineapple, gherkins and fried onions, and all stuffed in a folded bun roughly the size of a dustbin lid. 

The regular hot dog somewhat paled in comparison, although that too was groaning under the weight of assorted extras, including gallons of condiments and a thick drift of mini cheese cubes. It certainly wasn't subtle, but it was fun.

Walking over the Rakkauden Silta (or Bridge of Love, complete with the padlocks of many amorous couples) and basking in the rays of the late afternoon sun, I couldn't have felt happier. Finland is a fascinating, beautiful and friendly place where you'll find some of the safest, healthiest and best educated people in the world. Just remember to say no to that salty liquorice....

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