In Helsinki, style is everywhere
SNOW was falling the only other time I had visited Helsinki. I remember a concert at the Finlandia Hall (Sibelius, surely?), reindeer meat and silver birch trees. Smiling poets told me dolefully that it was very unlucky in Finland to have only one drink (or two, or three . . .). There were fur coats and a medieval painting showing a saint turning sheep into grasshoppers. Finland — ruled for ages by the Swedes and by the Russians but fiercely independent since 1917— was like nowhere else I had been . . . elusive, Baltic, strange.
I had always wanted to go back, and then suddenly the opportunity arose. It was a quirky experience, including an unplanned evening at the Olympic stadium with the Finnish Cricket Association, but the highlight was the Savoy Restaurant. This was opened on top of an office building on the Esplanade 70 years ago.
It was designed, down to the last table lamp and place setting, by Arvo Aalto, Finland’s most celebrated architect, and before long it had become the haunt of another famous Finn, field marshal Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, the architect of his country’s independence and ultimately its president.
The field marshal had a regular table at the Savoy, marked now by a discreet plaque on the wall. Here in a corner of the long, low, pale pine-lined room, he would look out on his fellow diners while sipping an akvavit-based drink of his own invention, called a Marskin ryyppy. They still serve this lethal concoction at the Savoy in an icy shot glass filled to the point of overflowing. This was the way the marshal liked it and even in old age his grasp was so steady that not a drop was spilled.
While drinking his ryyppy, the old soldier ate vorschmack. This, too, is still served at the Savoy and it comes beautifully presented as if it were serious gourmet food, which it isn’t, being instead, as far as I can see, officers’ scoff, which the marshal originally encountered in the mess of the cavalry school in Warsaw. The centrepiece of vorschmack is a hash of minced beef, lamb, salt herring, anchovy and garlic. Around this are grouped potatoes, either plain boiled or mashed, beetroot, dill cucumbers and sour cream or smetana.
I paid an enjoyable homage to Aalto and Mannerheim recently, eating and drinking the field marshal’s elegantly served favourites in the architect’s stylishly preserved environment while looking out over Helsinki’s rooftops and savouring a pink and black northern sunset. It was the most memorable moment in an unusual, accessible and stylish small capital.
Both former residences of these famous Finns are open to the public: modest private houses scrupulously preserved as unostentatious domestic museums. Mannerheim’s home, in what is now the embassy part of town, is dark and unshowy save for the impossibly glamorous pictures of the old soldier in a variety of Ruritanian uniforms with huge epaulettes and jauntily worn helmets, the originals of which are preserved behind glass.
The field marshal was a good-looking man with an imposing moustache and an aristocratic mien. When he met Hitler in a railway carriage near the border he was surprised to see the Fuhrer running to greet him and remarked caustically, ‘‘ You can tell he’s a corporal. Only other ranks run.’’ After dinner he lit up a cigar, knowing perfectly well that Hitler was an obsessive nicotinophobe.
Aalto’s house is at the other end of town. It is modest but also bears all the hallmarks of Aalto’s style, involving light woods, curving original shapes, practicality and a wry sense of humour. There is even a narrow ladder to a thin, semi-secret door through which Aalto was able to escape to a much-loved roof terrace overlooking the sea. When he built the house in the 1930s it was still in open countryside beyond the city boundaries but Helsinki’s suburbs have now surrounded it.
Sadly the sea view has been blocked out. The same is true of the marshal’s house downtown. Both places, like both reputations, survive but they have become subsumed by history. Mannerheim also has an equestrian statue near the parliament building, while Aalto is memorialised in the Finlandia Hall he designed. Together they represent the very best of their country: style, independence and a distinctively soulful humour. The Spectator