Fly&Dine Contributor Paul Bacon returns with a delicious journey through Helsinki. Take it away, Paul…
My wife has a bucket list and on that list is the Aurora Borealis. We struck out in Sweden at the Ice Hotel due to clouds and warm temperatures*. We decided to try Iceland but there were issues with Sky Team availability so we settled on Rovaniemi, Finland which sits on the Arctic Circle. To get there we had to fly into Helsinki, Finland (HEL) where we could adjust our body clocks for a couple of days.
For a little fun on the way, we decided to try a food tour in Helsinki. After research and emails I decided on Heather’s Helsinki, The Fork In Hand Food Tour. Through email exchanges I gave her additional information such as food allergies. The meeting place was described as ”‘under the clock’ of Stockmann” in the center of town. My first question was “a clock?” We asked at the front desk at the Hilton Strand (I recommended the hotel) and they said that was a usual meeting place and gave directions on how to get there.
When we arrived it was snowing heavily. We had no problem finding Heather with her pink polka dot coat and a sign saying “Fork in Hand.” We were the only ones on the tour, so the adventure began.
The first stop was on one of the lower levels (-1) of the Stockmann’s store. The best way to describe the store is Target, JC Penny, Macy’s, Whole Foods, and a sprinkling of Home Depot get together to make a 9-story building in the middle of a city. We were given a tour of the food hall with emphasis on local foods (breads, vegetables, meats, cheese, etc.) and then a stop at the fish counter. There waiting for use was a plate with spinach/pike mousse, rainbow trout roe, and a mayonnaise lemon dill and shrimp mixture.
My wife loves roe and enjoyed every bite. We were both surprised to see the amount of so many different fish roes that were available. I would recommend Stockmann’s for an introduction to many types of foods representing Finland.
Next stop was for porridge. My wife has a saying that she is going to forage for porridge when she is hungry. Porridge? Really? Then we learned this is a food enjoyed by most in Finland during various times of the day. The location was Café Kuppi & Muffini. This is a small shop with some cakes, muffins, and outstanding porridge. We had rye porridge with soy milk that was very smooth and very good. In addition, there was a “fixin’s bar” where you could add many different items such as flax seed, jams, spices, etc. I chose the Lingonberry and apple jams with a touch of cinnamon. This warm comfort food was very welcome as we walked through the snow.
(Rye porridge with soy milk. Various options to add.)
(Rye porridge with soy milk. Addition of Lingonberry and apple jams with a touch of cinnamon)
Next stop was a small store named Kaartin Kotikauppa which is like many other European neighborhood locations that sells basic needs, foods, and this beer! We were introduced to various varieties of local craft beers (no tasting) in their walk-in refrigerator which was previously a meat locker. The real purpose of the visit was to try a cabbage pie, Lingonberry tart, and sparkling apple cider. I am not a fan of cabbage, but I found myself liking this very much. It had a mild flavor which did not let the cabbage overwhelm the rest of the ingredients. The cabbage pie contains cabbage, onion, butter, stock (beef), syrup (a lighter version of molasses), marjoram, pepper and salt. These are cooked together until they are soft, before being put into the pastry.
(Local Helsinki craft beers.)
(Cabbage pie, Lingonberry tart, and sparkling apple cider)
Next was a liquor store. Alko is local and not very large. One of my favorite locations, even though I do not drink much, are liquor stores because you can find many very local products. I was introduced to four that were very unusual. Cloudberry, Sea Buckthorn, and two blueberry liquors.
A cloudberry is a fruit of a herb in alpine, tundra and boreal forest. The fruit is an amber-colored edible fruit similar to the raspberry or blackberry. Despite great demand as a delicacy (particularly in Norway and Finland) the cloudberry is not widely cultivated. We were introduced to the cloudberry in Sweden as a jam.
Sea Buckthorn is a spiny deciduous shrub native to central Asia that has become naturalized around Britain’s coast-lands. Its bright orange berries are rich in vitamin C (containing up to 15 times that of oranges).
The blueberries are grown in local gardens or picked wild in the forest and then made into the liquor.
(Local Blueberry, Sea Buckthorn, Cloudberry, Forest Blueberry Liquors.)
As we walked to our next destination, Iittala – Scandinavian Design from Finland, we were told the story of Alvar Aalto who designed a vase that is on display at the Savoy restaurant that is replicated in many sizes and colors. We made a short stop in the store to see the various iterations of this famous vase. For more information on the vase, please go here.
Just around the corner from Iittala is a brewery and eatery — not your average brewpub by any means. Bryggeri has beer created on site and the “Best Wurst in Helsinki.” We sipped some of the beers and tried to decide on our favorite. There was a change of flavor to each beer when you had it without and then with food. We had wurst with potato salad and an incredible mustard. The wurst was amazing. Complex flavors with little grease to cloud the palate. The mustard was slightly sweet with a kick at the end. After eating the wurst I changed my list of beers. My favorite ended up being the IPA and the Union. My wife, who does not like beer, actually enjoyed them and liked the change of taste with the food.
(Wurst with potato salad and an incredible mustard)
We then walked to one of the oldest markets in Helsinki. The Vanha Kaupphhalli market is not very large but has a lot of variety. We stopped at the Paalanen stall to try some cheeses. We started with a goat that had a very mild flavor. Next was a cow cheese which was also mild. Next was one of the best blue cheeses I have every enjoyed. It was creamy and pungent at the same time with a sharp bite at the end that was not overwhelming. This is when I wish I could take a few pounds of the cheese home in my carry on luggage. Next was a “squeaky” cheese with cloudberry jam on top. It is squeaky because it spends a little time in the oven.
(Vanha Kaupphhalli market cheese vendor)
(Peltola Blue, Jätkäsaari, Juustoportti’s Grand Reserve goat, Bread cheese with Cloudberry jam.)
The final stop was Karl Fazer which is known for its chocolates and desserts. We enjoyed a delicious Budapest cake and my wife had a beautiful white chocolate passion fruit mousse on chocolate crumble. We were told about the eggs in the picture below. They are chicken eggs where the contents have been removed and replaced with chocolate. To eat them you break open the shell, remove, and eat. I can’t wait to get some home and try them out on friends. Maybe a “hardboiled egg ala mode” for dessert?
Budapest cake, White chocolate passionfruit mousse
(Chicken egg shells filled with chocolate)
When visiting locations for the first time, I highly recommend a food tour. You are with a local who understands the culture and there is usually a history lesson included. Even if you are staying with friends or family they may not really know the best and most unique food locations in their local area. This is why food tours like Heather’s Helsinki are so valuable. If you are going to be in Helsinki please send Heather an email and enjoy a wonderful culinary experience.
*We struck out seeing the Aurora Borealis in Rovaniemi, Finland due to clouds. Next attempt may be Iceland or Alaska. We did get a chance to enjoy reindeer prepared many ways.