Hold the reindeer
Tasty bites on the hop in Finland’s hip capital
Food is the perfect introduction to a city and as this is my first visit to Helsinki there are new concepts to grasp (children avert your eyes now), including reindeer meatballs, sold in little stalls on the waterfront market square. And at breakfast, “egg butter” alongside karjalanpiirakat, whatever that may be.
I need a little culinary context here and I’ve been put in touch with a guide called Heather who I’m scheduled to meet outside the Stockmann department store, home to the city’s premier food hall.
Petite, perky and carrying her own picnic accoutrements, Heather proffers a business card (“Heather’s Helsinki”) before outing herself as a Tasmanian. Nonetheless, she’s lived in the capital of Finland for 15 years, is a dedicated foodie and seems to know everyone working in this superior food hall where we are invited to taste as we go. There’s the likes of dark archipelago bread flavoured with molasses, perunarieska (potato flat bread from Lapland), smoked reindeer, black sausage with lingonberry jam and Lapland salmon, flamed, charred and smoked, the fillet nailed to a board. And the mysterious karjalanpiirakat or Karelian pasty is explained — it’s a rye pasty filled with rice (or potato) porridge and eaten warm slathered with butter mixed with chopped, boiled egg. Delicious. On Heather’s recommendation, I also stock up on some creamy Finnish mustard in a tube called Turun Sinappia and am now addicted.
Our tour takes in restaurants and stores across downtown, all of which offer generous serves and tastings, with Heather providing the kind of insight into the city only an outsider-turned-insider can bring. She reels off food facts as we walk, such as the Finns drink more coffee than any other nation; local pizza joint Kotipizza won the world’s best at a competition in New York in 2008 with a smoked reindeer and chanterelle mushroom combo named the Berlusconi after the former Italian prime minister who was very rude about Finnish food.
From Stockmann, it’s off to a cafe and “muffini” store, for a bowl of four-grain porridge cooked in soy with birch sugar and berries. Crossing the lovely Oldd Church Park we explore wine shops s and tiny corner stores selling boutique beers. We carb-load at t Bryggeri Brewery near the market square tucking into bratwurst washed down with a paddle of house ales. Then across the square to the waterfront Vanha Kauppahalli, a market hall dating from the 1880s, meticulously restored d and selling cakes, coffee, meats, breads and wine in the most charming surrounds; we’re here for the Peltola blue cheese served on Patsy’s homemade crackers with cloudberry jam. This is the perfect spot to grab a coffee and browse (avoiding the rather distressing cans of bear meat).
Our food walk ends back in town with coffee and a dainty cake or two at the famous Karl Frazer Cafe, housed in an art deco building. The chocolate here is as close to Helsinki’s heart as Haigh’s is to Adelaide’s and it would be a sin to leave town without a few bars of the Frazer Blue.
Christine McCabe was a guest of Finnair and Finavia.