Food from HEL and beyond!
I believe food is what defines a place! If you’re looking at what to eat in Finland, typical Finnish food, organic Finnish products and what the Finns do to have a good time, then this short food guide should help!
The snow is reflecting light to the sky and off the clouds, making it white as far as the eye could see. It crunched softly beneath my feet as I stepped out of the van. We were about 2 hours away from Helsinki, in Lahti, and the surroundings had changed entirely.
Dark green trees surrounded Villa Estelle, the typical Finnish cottage we were going to call home for the next couple of days. The upturned boat moored by the tree, made me realize we were staying on the edge of Lake Vesijärvi, now completely frozen.
I stepped out on the balcony to take a picture, and my fingers got numb instantly. The wind made an eerie sound outside while I wandered around the house. The villa was a classic example that showcased Finnish architecture and design. The table was massive and reminded me of the one at Arctic Panorama. It was a cozy place to get away from the city with family and get closer to nature.
An hour later we were off to another cottage where we were to make our own traditional Finnish dinner. Tealights were placed in tiny hollows in the snow, outside the cabin, and they cast a cheery glow over the place. Katja, the owner, and the whole crew were waiting patiently for us, with smiling eyes as all of us ‘Ooh-ed’ and ‘Aah-ed’ at the details inside. The tables had centrepieces adorned with berries and candelabra.
All about the details
It isn’t just Finland that places emphasis on the details. It’s the whole of Scandinavia. While locals embrace the outdoors even in winter, almost all houses exude warmth and are welcoming, ensuring time spent indoors makes you feel cheerful.
Jars of organic honey made from berry blossoms and spiced liquor were placed for tastings on a table outside the kitchen. The coagulated honey instantly melted in my mouth! Meanwhile, the chefs in the kitchen were busy starting preparations for the meal and eager to assist, I stepped in.
We were to make slivers of the freshly caught pikeperch and toss plentiful salt and lemon over it. Having had my first taste of ceviche two weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to see how this turned out. Others were busy mixing roe with sour cream and chopping veggies while a steak of deer was being roasted in the oven.
It’s all about ensuring the character of the ingredients takes center-stage here. Unprocessed, organic flavors. The fact that fresh, seasonal produce is always prioritized makes the flavors stand out! In times where stores are stocked full of additives to add taste to food, the approach is liberating!
“Foraging and sustainability are of prime importance here, and we’re grateful for the abundance of fish we’re blessed to have!”
Katja says as she informs us the appetizers are ready to be plated. I top Ruisleipä aka dark rye bread, popular in Finland with roe spread and another slice with the perch that was sat in the fridge for about an hour.
The beads of roe pop in my mouth and the perch is mouth-watering! I help myself to more only to realize later that I’m almost full. I, however, take small portions of the roasted deer and the veggies and leave space for dessert.
Dessert is blueberries topped with homemade custard. Berries are a staple here. There’s cloudberries, lingonberries, bilberries, etc.! The evening isn’t over yet, as next on the menu is experiencing the sauna! A couple of hours later we’re back at the villa, and I can’t help but wonder what’s next in store as the bar was set quite high by our hosts at Naapila.
“We encourage people who work here to showcase what they know best!”
The next day begins by introducing us to a Finnish secret – their obsession with the Long drink; pre-mixed drinks made by mixing Gin and soda of different flavors, at the Hartwall brewery. Invented to be compliant with the alcohol rules during the summer Olympics held in Finland, the drink is apparently quite popular with the Finns. I take a sip and then realizing I have a long day ahead of me, instantly push it away. However, the refreshing taste of grapefruit continues to linger in my mouth.
We then head to Eco Cafe Mea Manna for lunch via the Lahti Ski stadium. Kristi, our host, tells us that the stadium is equally famous in summer or maybe even more, as, at the base of the ski jumps, the snow melts to make way for an open-air swimming pool. It is the only ski jump tower in the world to possess such a feature making it quite popular.
The walk to the cafe isn’t long, and it continues to snow gently. Tiny snowflakes land on my gloves and I can’t help grinning from ear to ear as I see them clearly for the first time in my life! All of them are obviously unique, and I can finally trust all the pictures I’ve ever seen of them!
The smell of food welcomes us in but what catches my eye is the servers. Almost all of them are people with special needs. Mea Manna was founded by the organisation Kaupunkikylä who provide work opportunities for such people.
Eric, the owner, tells us that they specialise in raw cakes – cakes made from materials like coconut and almond flour some of which are entirely vegan.
The spread looks like a melange of colors. There’s crunchy salads, soups, fresh bread and even some baklava on offer! Eric explains;
“We encourage people who work here to showcase what they know best! That sometimes translates to Turkish, German and a range of other flavors”
The bakery is right next to the cafe, and the head baker is trying his best to introduce his colleagues when we pay a short visit. Most of them being shy, have scampered away and steal glances at us, smiling cheekily. They’re not used to visitors, but they’re amazing at what they do. Mea Manna provides training to them as well. It’s quite a touching moment as he explains how he’s getting a chance to give back while being happy with what he does.
His happiness is evident in the variety of bread products and cakes present at the cafe. They’re delicious, and it’s difficult to believe that some don’t contain flour. What catches my attention though is Runebergin Torttu, sweet tarts soaked in rum or arrack, topped with raspberry jam and sugar frosting and some sweet buns filled with whipped cream and sugar.
They’re made before the beginning of lent, only in February, and I’m delighted to be able to get to try them!
The Torttu are spongy and crumbly and one can notice the subtle presence of alcohol mixed with the jam. Eric encourages us to try some more cakes but I just can’t!
We’re taken to visit the microbrewery Kanavan Panimo next, home to the famous Sulku Pils beer followed by the Vääksyn mill and the Viipurilainen Kotileipomo bakery. The key ingredient that’s vividly noticeable in all of these establishments is how it’s a well-functioning ecosystem. The Kanavan Panimo brewery and the Viipurilainen Kotileipomo bakery uses oats supplied by the mill.
I ask Tepi, one of the owners as to what makes them different and he smiles as if he’s been waiting for someone to ask him that! He proceeds to tell a tale of how his father was sent to get some bread and realized the shortage of unprocessed, organic bread! This incident made him return to Lahti, his hometown and start the bakery, which uses organic ingredients sourced only locally, which ensures transparency.
Everyone knows what their products are made of when they buy something here and how they’re made as well. Kneading the dough by hand and honoring age-old processes are prioritized, and it reflects in the taste. The brothers want to take the motto further and have now launched their brand of natural protein drinks called Oatlaws, a play on the work Outlaws which is ironical as they’re not trying to break free but get back to how it has always been done!
There’s a surprise waiting for us at Lehmonkarki we’re told. Wrapping ourselves again, we’re off to the resort where we’re told we’re going to a cabin in the woods by taking a snowshoe walk. Not being a massive fan of snowshoes, I reluctantly put them on and off we go!
The hunting cabin wasn’t huge, and taxidermized wildlife looked down on us. While our hosts prepped the salmon; the highlight of the evening, we’re served ‘Brain mushroom’ soup, and I’m amazed! It’s unlike anything I’ve ever had. The texture is springy, and I can feel the wrinkles on the mushroom. Brain mushrooms are poisonous and need to be boiled about six times by using fresh water each time, but this doesn’t deter me from reaching for a second helping.
There’s also artichoke pannacotta and baked potatoes with cream, in addition to a few other dishes, but we hop outside to watch the salmon being roasted. The salmon steaks are secured to the wooden planks with mesh. The embers make me feel toasty while the smell reminds me of summer barbeques. We take pieces of ash, pick our salmon and put our name on the planks!
Once ready, the salmon is taken off the plank, cut and a simple seasoning is sprinkled over it. I take my plate and rush inside to try it. It melts in my mouth! It’s soft, creamy and other than the occasional taste of seasoning, tastes like salmon – no curry, no spice, no veggie flavors mixed! I savor every bite which results in me being the last of the lot trying to clear everything off my plate as the others put on their snowshoes on again. I wish I could get a ride back as I now feel I’m twice my weight!
Ensuring traditions live on…
Terhi of Kinnarin Tila tells us proudly that she and Teemu are the 14th couple in the 350-year-old history of the farm to ensure the Kinnari way of life is carried on. This meant cultivating crops in rotation, keeping environmental values in mind and taking only what is needed from nature, conserving the rest. It also included activities like grinding and producing flour and then making use of it for products made at the farm.
She has prepped the dough for making rye bread as the dough needs to rise for a couple of hours before it can be baked. We create patterns over it to help us recognize our work and off it goes into the oven.
While it’s getting done, we move to the tiny cabin next to the farm and Terhi gets us some chocolate cake topped with lingonberries while a fire roars in the center and the wind picks up pace outside.
I smile as I notice that I’ve been in Finland for a few days now and I’m not craving for the sun. There are fireplaces, sauna’s, innovative food – all the right constituents to good conversations and spending quality time together while indoors. Once we’ve finished our cake, we go back to check the bread, and it looks lovely, complete with the pattern I engraved on it. I place it delicately in my bag. Happy with my handiwork, I wander outside to take a few pictures and am told that dinner will be at the Restaurant (Ravintola) Roux, one of the best restaurants in Lahti (and possibly in Finland)!
Exploring Lahti is an exercise in vain that day as the wind doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Being winter, a few hours later, I’m not surprised that I’m hungry again and happy that the restaurant is a few minutes away from where we’re putting up.
“We update the menu several times a year because we emphasize on fresh produce and farm-to-fork cooking. Finnish food is all amalgamating Finnish, Russian and Scandinavian flavors and that’s what you’ll be eating today!” says Kati, the owner as servers bring out plates of blinis with roe and cream, plated beautifully.
They’re heavy and buttery, but the combination is exceptional. There are two types of roe, and I can taste the difference in texture and taste as I alternate between the two.
Some succulent fried lamb from Lapland then followed this, but the crowning point was the three chocolate dessert that followed. There was chocolate marquise with white chocolate mousse and chocolate fondant. Each of a different texture but melting in the mouth instantly! The meal couldn’t have ended in a better way!
Once we’re done eating, I realise my time in Lahti has almost come to an end. In all my travels to more than 35 countries, Finland had surprised me the most when it came to food!
I was expecting the usual European fare with grilled meat and veggies, but Finland and Lahti had made me realise my folly!
Sure, it was cold outside, but the Finns knew the secret to staying warm wasn’t just layering up but ensuring meals made you feel all snug and homely too…..and they didn’t reserve it just for themselves! You’re welcome to experience all of it too!
PIN FOR LATER!
- The restaurants mentioned in the post are from Lahti. Lahti is a great region to try winter activities and some great food. Located an hour away from Helsinki
- Ravintola Roux is the only luxury restaurant on the list
- It is possible to try all the foods mentioned here in Helsinki too!
- There are many other traditional dishes and foods to try in Finland, such as Hernekeitto – pea soup, Kaalikääryleet – cabbage rolls, Porkkanalaatikko (carrot casserole) and Karjalan piirakka (rice pies) to name a few. Do taste these if possible too!
If you’re looking for additional posts about the Scandinavian region why not check the Destinations page for inspiration!
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