As my readers know, I just spent a few autumny weeks in Finland, my native country. It was a busy visit, as I not only managed to cover over 2000 km of Finnish and Lappish roads (including a detour in the Swedish Lapland), but I got married as well. Hurrah!
My husband is Brazilian, and after his first visit to Finland he fell completely in love with the cottage culture and the vast landscape with, well, nothing in it. Our 2000 km road trip from Savonia to Lapland started with a lot of filming, pit stops for photographing, excitement and singing along the radio. But the truth to be told, after 1000 km of same scenery, same forrests, same nothingness, the camera was set aside and we were just silently (as the custom in Finland is) trying to spot some reindeer – just to see something, anything, different.
We did see reindeer, maybe 20 of them in total, and they were peaceful and graceful little creatures, staring at us from about 10 metres away like in fairytales, as if they possessed some magical wisdom we poor humans couldn’t understand. But of our magical stay in Lapland in a glass igloo I will write more later on!
First, the matter of Finnish cuisine has to be settled, as one of the most acute problems we encountered on our road trip was getting decent food in a decent place. Only after 2000 km drive my friend notified me that there is a web page you can check out more picturesque and personal road side coffee shops in Finland, instead of the eternal ABCs that have eaten up the smaller businesses. So, we ended up having some ABC doughnuts (or, munkki) pizzas ( too much pizzas…), and even Ikea food in Sweden. Some interesting looking places were closed – I hope only because the summer season was over – and some cosy looking places turned out to be just too creepy to stay in (imagine an old fashioned grampa’s living room as the setting, clock ticking, poisonous tasting coffee served, and TV presenting a black and white documentary about different ways to execute people. In English. Just that my poor husband would be even more freaked out. Mind you, so was I, and the coffees were left untouched).
But we did have some really nice experiences too, such as Kahvila Kaneli in Kuopio and an old priest’s house in Mannila serving lunch – basic home cooked meals, nothing special, not too pricy, but Finnish food, which had been proved so difficult to find in Finland. Yeah, go figure: where do you have to travel to get Finnish food?
I will write more about the nice experiences, but I have to start with the ultimate one, the culinary highlight of our visit in Finland.
As I really wanted to showcase Finnish flavours – which admittedly are on the sour side – which I know can be as tasty as any, I did some research for our stay in Helsinki, and ended up booking us a table from a restaurant called Juuri – which means a root.
Juuri is specialized in presenting traditional Finnish food made of local produce, and I checked their menu beforehand: the plan was to order many small “sapas” plates – just to prove that we Finns do have our own culinary past that is not pizza – and if this plan would fail, I’d admit the defeat and stop praising the many shades of rye and multiple use of new potatoes.
But even in Helsinki I got a little bit worried as we walked around the Boulevard and Esplanadi districts after dark on a Sunday evening: many restaurants were closed, or there were very little people in them if they were open. We aimlessly walked around, me worried if Juuri would be empty apart from us as I really had had enough already of the gloom that descends upon you when you keep being the only customer anywhere you happen to eat.
We walked down a gorgeous art nouveau street, looked at shop windows, and the anticipation grew as the time approached. And, finally, there it was, Juuri.
And from the outside the restaurant looked just perfect: I could see that it was full, and I could feel the buzz to across the street where I was taking some photos. On a dark street the lights from the restaurant and the happy faces on windows were like a will-o’-the-wisp.
When I chose Juuri, I had felt a bit bad skipping other recommendations made by friends and ignoring local Finnish blogs raving over new hip restaurants, but all this was washed away as we sat down in a very typical Finnish restaurant, which is a little bit on the retro side as I like it. The waitress was super friendly – something that also rectified a lot of the grumpy customer service over the past weeks – and brought one menu in English without asking. Later on she talked us through all the little sapas plates we had ordered, and then when we were finally finished and I poured in the compliments over the food, she enthusiastically joined my praises in a genuine manner.
Our dinner started, naturally, with some cava: organic Cava Funambul, which was fresh and fruity in flavour and… ach, what the heck, I just liked it because it had bubbles in it! With our sapas we ordered some French red wine, which blew us away. Things were starting to look good for me and Finnish cuisine with these little helpers from Spain and France!
And then the sapas arrived. I had ordered five little plates, some flavours that we had liked before, as the squeaky cheese (I love that name!) and cloudberries, my all time favourite Finnish berries. Another sapas I was particularly proud of was the sprig salted white fish with dill and crispy rye bread: so Finnish, and so delicious! Even the rye bread, which is all made in house, didn’t intrude with the well balanced flavours, and we were both happy to eat it, which is the first what it comes to sharing rye bread in our household. I also wanted to get a taste of Jerusalem artichoke with rose hip and garlic, as I had pointed out rose hip before, and raved over the Valio yoghurt with rose hip jam – a concoction that left my toughest food critic unimpressed. We also had duck, just to not to get overly Finnish in our food theme, and finally, some Finn cattle beef with parsnip and cranberry.
My former ex-chef, who coincidentally is the first Brazilian to get a Michelin star, once told me that you can judge from people’s faces if the food is good: real smile produced by perfectly balanced flavours extends to the eyes, he said, and I believe it. Around us I saw two rooms full of people smiling and chatting away gingerly, and looking at my husband’s happy eyes I said to myself: finally, I rest my case, Finland has a culinary tradition that is as good as any. I just wish more restaurants explored it and used it as a strenght as Juuri has done. (a notion: for a foreigner, the ever popular pepper steak in basic Finnish menus means in reality just pepper what it comes to the taste of it)
But this is not all! There was also dessert. And oh, what dessert… I ordered the blueberry and crowberry with roasted oat and buttermilk. On the Finnish menu they use the term “piapo” for the roasted oat: piapo is a typical ingredient in my local area Savonia, but we use a different term for it, talkkuna, whereas piapo is used in other districts. I was very happy with my choice but a spoonful of my husband’s chocolaty bread and butter pudding made of Finnish bun with a hint of cardamom made me slam one hand against the table, stand up and shout: “I REST MY CASE!” Naturally only in my imagination, in reality I settled on enjoying the tingling feeling of victory while munching on our desserts. As I’ve mentioned before, my husband, although not a connoisseur of rye, milk products and fish, does know his chocolate. And from his smiling eyes I could tell that he was pleased, very pleased indeed.
So, to sum it up, Juuri did its job in resting my case that Finnish food is not only tasty and suitable for pallets from all over the world, but also innovative, clever and first of all, as part of our culture, something we can be proud of.
Photos: sateenmuruja & M. Corrêa