This post in the first in a multi-week series about Finland's local foods and traditional cuisine. To view a slide show of Helsinki—and some Finnish wild foods—click here.
In summer, the city of Helsinki in Finland is so temperate that it is nearly impossible to imagine how far north it is unless you have a visual aid—a globe, for example, which shows Finland alarmingly close to the "top" of the world, on a latitude with Anchorage, Alaska. Flying from New York City to Finland, the route crosses the Arctic Circle along the southern coast of Greenland, north of Iceland. The view from the plane window is an endless expanse of snow pocked with jagged gray peaks, like a topographical map of immense beauty. Glaciers sliding into the sea powder it with small icebergs.
Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Finland is one of the northernmost agricultural regions in the world. In summer and fall, Helsinki's markets burst with the kinds of foods that are coveted by gastronomes and chefs the world over: wild chanterelles, cèpes (boletes), and black trumpet mushrooms; black, red, and white currants; riots of berries—cloudberries, rowanberries, lingonberries, blueberries, strawberries; crayfish and an astonishing array of river, lake, and sea fish and their caviars; and toward fall, wild game such as duck and grouse, as well as reindeer, elk, and moose. "Wild" foods like mushrooms and game that are routinely farmed in other countries are truly wild in Finland, and in abundance. National law allows any citizen to forage in the country's pristine forests. Because its growing season is short with long days of sun, the flavor of produce is concentrated. Strawberries, blueberries, currants, lettuces, and vegetables all taste more vivid, like essential versions of themselves.
With all this bounty, Finnish food remains virtually unknown to the rest of the world. When I mentioned I was going to Finland, the response was invariably a pause and then: "They eat reindeer, right?" Nobody, myself included, seemed to have any idea of what Finnish food is like. Nor did a soul mention its legendary designers like Alvar Aalto, Dora Jung, or Eero Saarinen, nor Nokia, nor Linus Torvalds, the creator of open-source Linux, nor even the high-design housewares of Marimekko and Iittala. Finland has been curiously invisible.
I went to Finland and became so smitten that I arrived back in Manhattan "homesick" for many things I had experienced there: the unbelievably delicate Baltic herring and barely smoked caviars of its many river fish, like vendace and salmon; the astonishing rye breads made with ancient starters; the energy and beauty of Helsinki, a tiny metropolis where you can walk everywhere and see gorgeous architecture, waterways, and wonderful design at every turn, from its vivid orange/red market tents and subway trains to its fantastic Design Museum. I also yearned to beam myself back to a spare island cottage, with chanterelles growing along the path, and a wood-fired sauna ...
There is a strong movement toward local foods in Finland fueled in part by government programs to raise awareness of Finnish products to Finns themselves, and to the rest of the world. Concerns for the health of its citizens and for the environment brought a sea change in the government's attitudes, as did its entrance into the European Union in 2005. It has been said that stinging comments about Finnish food from both Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi and French President Jacques Chirac that year gave the Finnish government added incentive to support Finnish gastronomy.
The government is keenly aware that food and culture go hand in hand, and that if Finland is to fully take its place as World Design Capital in 2012, its food must match the rest of its design in quality and inventiveness. But well before the government's awakening, the local foods movement was gaining steam, fueled by individuals like Miina Äkkijyrkkä, an artist who took up the cause of Finland's endangered indigenous cow, and restaurants like Lasipalatsi in Helsinki and Wolkoff in Lappeenranta, who drew attention to the extraordinary quality of Finnish ingredients.
During my time in Finland, I had the feeling that the country was deep into a dramatic process of change, with one foot still in its old-style nostalgic foods—cold weather farm cooking, which can be delicious or border on stodgy—and the other in a reinterpretation of the national flavors with a lighter hand, modern techniques, and great creativity. In all, however, is a palpable celebration of the country's superb raw materials.