Finland: Helsinki for foodies
With my affinity for the Mediterranean, the Scandinavian countries have not been on my radar until now. We visited three of them earlier this month and the sheer beauty and elegance of the cities, the architecture, the people, the archipelagos surrounding the coastline and yes, the food, were extraordinary.
Finland (Helsinki) especially was fascinating, set as far north as I have ever been to (before visiting Iceland). I had a special childhood connection to Finland and it’s most northern region, Lapland. As a child I grew up reading a series of books about children from around the world photographed by the Swedish-Jewish photographer Anna Riwkin-Brick. One of these book was a classic story by Elly Jannes about Elle Kari, a girl from Lapland. The story documents in image and prose the life and adventures of Elle growing up with her family in this remote part of the world. I read the book over and over, fascinated by a life of a girl my age whose life experience was vastly different than mine. I think reading these books at an early age was partly what fuelled my love of or even the need for travel. That need stayed with me to this day and my passion for travel hasn’t subsided.
So, to be in Finland, not far from it northern region of Lapland and sample cloudberries, smoked fish and other food items from Lapland that I used to read about as a child was a fascinating, personal experience that made the short visit much more meaningful than just a stopover on a cruise.
I tried to book a food tour of Helsinki with Heather’s Helsinki, a local blogger and food tour operator who offers a 4 hour walking tour of Helsinki but couldn’t make the time work with the ship leaving port at 5:00 pm. Heather however was very helpful with information about how to do my own food tour of the city and sent me links for self guided maps and markets information. She advised that the Visit Helsinki tourist information office downtown Helsinki (you can’t miss it) offers free maps to help you navigate the city. Firstly the Helsinki Food Map providing layout of the city marking all of the different food opportunities for the culinary enthusiasts, and second, A Day in Helsinki Map that marks things to do around town divided by districts.
As it turned out, I had to limited my exploration to the markets near the harbour and put Helsinki on my list of places to go back to in the future.
Old Market Hall
My routine on shore days was to get up early and head into town searching for the local market first. On the list for Helsinki was to begin with coffee and korvapuusti, aka kanelipula or Pula (bun) the special cinnamon pastry they are famous for and for that I headed to Vanha Kauppahalli, aka the Old Market Hall (#35 on the food map). The market is located right at the harbour off the main market square at Etelaranta and across the street from the Visit Helsinki tourist office. It is located in a red and white brick building constructed in 1889. Fashioned after market halls in other European cities, the market has a main gallery comprised of two arcades connected in the middle and at both ends and the merchants shops are situated along each side. Today some 30+ merchants occupy the available stalls.
We settled at Robert’s coffee near the entrance together with many other local customers enjoying their morning coffee. We ordered coffee and pula and enjoyed the morning market activity around us. The pula at this location was a fairly large cinnamon bun sprinkled with coarse pearl sugar. They are made from yeast dough scented with cinnamon and cardamom and have a shape that is unique to Finland. You roll up the cinnamon roll then cut it into individual rolls that are more triangular in shape, then press the center with your finger to squish out the edges. It’s hard to explain but I’ll try to make them and provide a recipe soon.
The market was a lot of fun, with some similarities to the market we visited in Copenhagen. Beautiful open faced sandwiches, fried vendace, herring, smoked fish, cheeses and fabulous looking breads were among the food items at the market together with a number of eateries and a couple of coffee shops.
Kauppatori – The Outdoor market in Market Square
Outside the Old Market Hall there is an open air market located in Market Square, consisting of several stands selling anything from produce to fish, cheese and street foods. Among the street foods the most popular were the seasonal fried and potatoes, cooked in giant flat skillet over gas flames. The fried vendace, fried on the spot, were crisp, slightly salty and delicious and for the moment I abandoned my vegetarian habits in favour of trying this popular local food. Some vendace are sold in paper cones, other on plates with potatoes, vegetables or on their own. Salmon with vegetables and potatoes seemed to be a popular lunch item at the market, all cooked in the oversized skillets right in front of you.
There were several berries and mushrooms in season as well. The berries that particularly caught my attention were the cloudberries from Lapland, soft yellow-orange berries made into unsweetened jam and sold in plastic containers as a seasonal delicacy availab le for only a couple fo weeks in the fall. The berries were not too sweet (no sugar was added) and had a velvety texture and tangy flavour. In Lapland particularly these berries, fresh or in jam form, are served with a type of fried cheese known as cheese bread (leipajuusto).
Another market recommended by Heather’s Helsinki is the Hakaniemi market hall (#58 on the food map). In operation for more than a hundred years, the two story market (produce etc. on main floor) is home to many food vendors from cheese and dairy, fish, produce, bakeries and meat as well as a number of cafes and lunch counters.
What to eat in Helsinki
This tiny fish from the surrounding fresh water lakes and rivers is a classic street food in Helsinki, offered lightly breaded and fried from giant skillets, or served in paper cones or plastic cups with a side of garlic mayo and lemon. Crisp, lightly salted, buttery and delicious, it is served on it’s own as a snack or with potatoes for impromptu market lunch. This is a seasonal delicacy, son’t miss the opportunity.
These rye pastries are a typical breakfast food you can get at the market. The dark dough is made with rye flour and the pies are filled with rice and topped with butter and eggs.
Korvapuusti aka kanelipulla, or Pulla (bun)
Soft and sweet cinnamon buns known throughout Scandibanvia. A must have with your coffee break any time of the day.
Kalakukko – baked rye pies
Rye flour crusts containing a filling of fish, either vendace, salmon, perch or sometimes vegetables. This is customarily consumed with buttermilk.
Lapland Salmon soup
This traditional salmon soup is a staple of Finnish cuisine hailing from Lapland and you can find it in the market for a quick bowl and on most restaurants menus. The soup is made with fish stock flavoured with dill, with cream, chunks of potatoes and salmon added to finish the soup.
Open face sandwiches
All over Scandinavia you find these amazing looking open faced sandwiches topped with beautifully arranged fish, cheese, eggs and more. I was literally hyperventilating at the sight of these gorgeous, appetizing creations. You find them anywhere.
Cloud Berries with Fried Cheese Bread
Fried cheese topped with cloudberry jam from Lapland, not sweet and rather tangy. Special fall treat when visiting Helsinki as the berries are available during a short period in early fall onl
New potatoes with everything
You see new potatoes in most dishes in Finland, at the market and at restaurants. They are deliciously buttery and have a creamy texture. The Finns eat them with herring, with salmon or other fish, with mushroom sauce or just on their own.
Opposites attract: we have our salted chocolate and the Finns their salted liquorice. Deliciously not too sweet and lightly salted you see this offered everywhere as a sweet snack.
Reindeer meat sandwiches
Not for everyone, definitely not for me, but reindeer meat is consumed in Lapland and the rest of Finland.
This and that
Food tours: Heather in Helsinki
Food maps: Visit Helsinki food tour map
Helsinki day tour maps: Visit Helsinki day tour map
Hakaniemen Kauppa Halli – Hakaniemi market hall