A couple of years ago, Tuula and I were heading to Finland for two weeks and I remember saying that, while we had a lot to look forward to, it wouldn’t necessarily be a gastronomic holiday.
That’s not to say that we hadn’t eaten some very food in Finland – fortifying food in winter and intense flavours in summer that result from the very short growing season. We had also eaten in some good restaurants. And eight years ago we had a lot of fun with our wedding menu, which was like a culinary tour of the country. What we meant was that we could not expect food to be a real focus of our holiday in the way that it often is elsewhere.
That same evening we were eating our words as well as some extraordinary food in SicaPelle in Porvoo, a beautiful old town east of Helsinki. And a recent week in Finland has proven the verdict to be even more out-of-date. There has been something of a dining revolution.
A decade ago, town centres and out-of-town shopping centres were dominated by branded restaurants, owned by a small number of groups, that charged dauntingly high prices for food that was often little better than mediocre. Frasmanni, Rosso, Pancho Villa, Amarillo – these were some of the names. That’s not to say that there weren’t good, independent places around – of course there were – but they didn’t stand out. The same was true in the UK, it still is, but the Finnish restaurant brands seemed even more ubiquitous.
The chains still have a strong presence, and it turns out even some of the apparent independents are in the Raflaamo group, which is in turn part of the huge S-group. But there is now so much more choice, with many more interesting places serving good food, firmly rooted in Finnish cuisine but with an eye to influences from elsewhere. And the best thing? Some of the best places don’t cost that much more. The better the quality, the better value by far – certainly relative to the UK.
Our recent week also demonstrated that the best eating is uniquely Finnish. Even with snow still covering much of the country, we finished our week with the strong sense that we had eaten of the land, the forests, the lakes and the shores. Denmark may have led the way, but this is not copycat stuff: it’s brilliant Finnish food.
Juuri – Helsinki
This was our fourth or fifth visit to Juuri, which I reviewed here last year. Its small plate concept – sapas – has been replicated many times over, but Juuri continues to deliver it with aplomb. You can have a whole meal of sapas or, more typically, a selection to start. The difference between Juuri and other small plate restaurants is that each dish is like a miniature meal in itself.
Our dishes made this point: herrings with golden beetroot and beetroot crumb (below centre); black salsify with salsify pudding and salsify and dill puree (below right); a fish croquette with pickled cucumber and horseradish (below left); sausage with potato salad and mint. All four of our sapas were brilliantly executed.
There are set menus for which the restaurant chooses the selection, although you can indicate preferences (we wanted the salsify, for example). We went for the four-course menu and our starter of the four sapas was followed by white fish with pickled fennel. We also had the fish choice for our main: pike perch, as a fillet and a pudding, with a roast parsnip (below). The sweet earthiness of the unpeeled parsnip matched well with the freshwater fish, which, unsurprisingly given Finland’s 250,000 lakes, is a national staple.
Fruit cake for dessert was a potential anti-climax, but was lifted by lemon and crème fraiche sorbet, a malt and lemon mousse and a malt crumb. T’was the season for malt (ask a Finn about mammi…).
Juuri is a fixture for us when we visit Helsinki. Not every dish will appeal, but the selection means that won’t matter. The food connects to Finnish tradition, but it is unmistakably contemporary.
Chef and Sommelier – Helsinki
The Michelin-starred Chef and Sommelier is tiny – 20-odd covers. Tuula had been there previously in a group that took over the whole restaurant – lucky them – but for me this was a first. And it was exquisite.
We found it difficult to remember the detail of each individual dish a day later. But that wasn’t a disappointment because there’s a higher purpose: our overwhelming impression was of a menu that had Finland, especially its forests and coasts, as its frame of reference. That seemed more important than each detail – despite the exemplary thought that goes into every plate.
There is no à la carte and we chose the five-course menu (seven courses are also available). For a change, we also opted for the matching wines. This looked a good value option, and so it proved when the sommelier kept us nicely topped up throughout.
An amuse-bouche of fir needles, whey and seaweed set the tone and the rest of the menu took us on a Finnish trip: carrot and sea buckthorn; cold-smoked pike; beetroot and berries; pork neck and potato; juniper and blueberry. These descriptors revealed little about the complexity and accomplishment of the dishes. The carrots – slices and a puree – sat on a base of tarragon oil that was almost a broth, with soft cheese (yes, cheese) and a balancing acidic pop from the sea buckthorn berries. A genius combination. The beetroot and blackcurrants were in a beetroot and (I think) lingonberry sauce, with pine shoots providing more reminders of the forest. You could almost read a newspaper through the thinly-sliced pike, yet it delivered a smoky punch that was balanced by rowanberries, pickles and celery. The pork had been cooked slowly and carefully and made us think of the meat that falls from the best-cooked ribs, and yet it was a vibrantly-pink, single dense piece of meat, topped with pickled rhubarb and grain mustard.
Every detail was marvellous, but mattered only because they added up to a whole. How often can you say that about a tasting menu? The courses were all highly creative yet somehow comforting – a riposte to those highly complex dishes in some restaurants that make you feel like you’re solving a cryptic crossword. This was food that showed care in the sense of love, not care in the sense of technical ability.
Mami – Turku
Turku, in Finland’s southwest and its original capital, has a more obvious food and drink culture than other Finnish towns, including even Helsinki. We had been to Mami several years ago and were disappointed not to get in last year. But after just two visits – no hubris here – this is starting to turn into one of our favourite restaurants, anywhere. There’s something happy about the place: the creative yet simple dishes; the contemporary, uncrowded room; the informality; the friendliness, enthusiasm and deep knowledge of the woman who keeps the dining room ticking over; the interesting wine list. And, it almost goes without saying, the outstanding quality of the cooking.
‘Life of a Salmon from Brändö’ (below) was quirkily named but this was serious salmon: grilled, a chunky mousse, roe, crispy skin and smoke-cured with sesame. Served with the crumbs of Finnish fruit bread, pickled onion and cucumber, it was a brilliant exposition of salmon and not the cliché that these ‘five ways’ dishes can be. Lamb tartare with green peppercorn mayonnaise was similarly well executed – lamb may go a bit mushier than beef when served this way, but the taste was refreshing and balanced, with a good hit of green peppercorns in the tartare as well as the mayo.
For mains, we both had lamb two ways (below): a generous roll of breast with the fat properly rendered so that it did not overpower the lamb’s sweetness, and a slow-cooked piece of neck that fell apart as the knife cast its shadow. It was good lamb but the highlight was its base: as lovely a lentil stew as we have tasted – puy and green lentils, little cubes of carrot, cabbage and tenderstem broccoli, all laced with a truffle cream. The truffle did not advertise itself, but did just enough to accentuate the earthy flavours. Stunning.
These were three restaurants in quick succession that rank with some of the very best we have eaten in recently. They showed off Finnish produce and Finnish practices – smoking, pickling and berries preserved for use throughout the year. As it happens, I was unexpectedly taken to a three-star London restaurant the following week where I experienced some extraordinary cuisine, beautiful and elaborate dishes and the minutest attention to detail. It was a great privilege and a treat to be there. But did it have the soul of these three Finnish places? And did it deliver flavours in the same way? No on both counts. And it was more than twice the price.
And so, a word on price. Good Finnish restaurants are not cheap. However, this is relative. Prices are high across the board. In a chain restaurant, a main course will set you back €25, three courses will be €45. On that basis, a five-course tasting menu at the Michelin-starred Chef and Sommelier for €62 seems by a country mile to underestimate the difference in the cooking and the whole experience. The equivalent prices in London would be €20 and £75-plus, if you’re lucky. The other restaurants mentioned here were similarly priced: four courses at Juuri were €52, and our starters and mains at Mami were €14 and €27. Finland suddenly doesn’t seem so expensive.
Something similar happens with the price of wine. In Alko, the drinks monopoly, there are some wines for under €10 but even Alko’s own tags frequently include the word ‘jammy’. However, you don’t have to go much further up the price ladder to find wines that beat prices in Britain. The taxes level off and the buying power of the monopoly comes into play. This is reflected in restaurants. We noticed a very ordinary bottle of hotel house wine advertised for €38. And yet in Mami, we had a bottle of 2007 Chateau Musar from Lebanon, for €54. It was drinking superbly and fabulous with our food.
While on wine, a shout-out to Tintå wine bar in Turku, which has a very strong and eclectic selection, pretty well-priced. Not cheap at the lower end, but it’s possible to drink very good wines by the glass (many of them kept under argon gas) at competitive prices. The barman really knew his wine, the place was buzzing and the pizzas eaten at the bar were just the job.
One final thing: home cooking is also changing, with apparently insatiable interest from lifestyle magazines and TV leading the charge. At its best, it remains about Finnish style and Finnish tradition, but brought up-to-date. One result was the delicious yogurt-marinated, slow-cooked leg of lamb served by Tuula’s mother on Easter Sunday. A traditional Finnish Easter lunch, but with a contemporary approach.
The moral of all this: try Finland now for brilliant Scandinavian cuisine (but expect everyone to know soon – Nigel Slater was in the Chef and Sommelier the week after us).