To view a slide show of markets and restaurants from Helsinki and the Finnish countryside, click here.
Helsinki—high energy, easy to navigate, rich with restaurants and design—is the best place to get an instant feel for Finnish food and sensibility. From there you can easily travel to the countryside to experience an island retreat or an inn serving traditional country fare, with Swedish influences to the East, and Russian influences to the West. The country is so small that nothing is very far away.
High summer is the time to go, when wild foods, especially mushrooms and berries, are everywhere, and the weather is fine. Winters are so dark and long in Finland that summer is taken very seriously, and there are endless festivals devoted to opera—the most famous being Savvonlinna—modern dance, jazz, drama, and curiously tango, about which many Finns are passionate. Starting July 21, crayfish are celebrated at home and in restaurants for several weeks—even Finnair flights feature them. Summer is the time when most Finns take extended holidays to island and forest retreats (which I will feature in an upcoming post).
To get a quick lay of the land of Finnish food, start in the morning at Kauppatori, Helsinki's market square by the port. It comprises a huge outdoor market with vendors displaying seasonal foods under vivid red and orange tents and the old, somewhat touristy covered market called Hakaniemen Hall, where there are still many treasures to be found, including, I've heard, goose livers from birds that have not been force fed, an interesting ingredient possibility. Purveyors pull up to Kauppatori in boats, as well, to sell home-smoked fish, vegetables, and flowers. On a sunny day, you can perch on an Aalto stool at a stand selling coffee and traditional snacks and sample fried pastries filled with ground meat or berry jam (a Finnish jelly doughnut), or Karelian rice pies.
A 15-minute walk away on the teeming Mannerheimintie, in the yellow functionalist landmark Lassipalatsi Building, is the recently-opened farmers' market Eat & Joy Maatilatori. This is the place to see the range of Finland's local foods, to shop for them for picnics, to sample in your hotel room, and to take home. The store is committed to giving Finnish farmers and food artisans a wider venue to sell their products. Aki Arjoli, one of Maatilatori's founders, will point out the seasonal treasures among the offerings of 200 or so producers who sell through the store: breads and mueslis, beef and cheese from Finland's indigenous Kyyttö forest cow, wild reindeer, microbrews, berry wines and preserves, licorice, superb smoked fish and caviars ... It was there that I bought the astonishing Baltic herring that had just arrived vacuum-sealed from a local fisherman, to take home to New York in my luggage.
Upstairs from Maalitori is Lassipalatsi restaurant, a Helsinki institution and one of many restaurants in Helsinki that feature local ingredients. It is a good place to sample truly wild reindeer—which have fed only on the 300 or so plants they find in the forest—along with many of Eat & Joy Maatilori's offerings and the wonderful architecture itself, which looks out on the bustling boulevard.
Nokka, set in an old portside warehouse, is a mix of rustic and luxurious: the restaurant offers Finnish flavors married with contemporary European influences like foams and tomato "water." Its little booklet about the provenances of its ingredients has been called slightly fetishistic. What could be better? It is a great way to learn about or track down excellent producers. Nokka's wine and alcohol list is outstanding and they have an enormous range of Finnish fruit wines—and even a Finnish sherry. It is one of the few restaurants that offers a plate of local farmstead cheeses.
Savoy, whose every detail was designed by Alvar Aalto, has an enclosed terrace with sweeping views of Helsinki rooftops and the ever-changing sky. It offers excellent Finnish classics and plays on seasonal foods, like vorschmak, a favorite of military leader and statesman Baron C. G. E. Mannerheim, president of Finland from 1944 to 1946 and an early patron of the restaurant. It is a sort of warm Finnish paté: ground beef and mutton mixed with minced herring, onions, and garlic and accompanied by halves of baked potatoes, sour cream, minced beets, and pickles. It is classically drunk with iced schnapps (which is similar to a gently aromatic vodka).
Atelje Finne is a spare, modern bistro in the former studio of sculptor Gunnar Finne. Chef Antto Melasniemi makes "contemporary Finnish food": Finnish ingredients and flavors paired with simple, classic French technique into utterly satisfying, straightforward foods in a really lively atmosphere.
The tiny Juuri has 24 seats and a feel that is at once modern, rustic, and young. It features Sapas, "Finnish tapas," small plates of imaginative takes on Finnish recipes and ingredients, including a mild version of vorschmak, smoked Kyyttö cow heart, whitefish tartare with spinach mousse, and several dishes made with root vegetables (juuri). They also offer Finnish berry wines, some made by the owner Markus, and Finnish farmstead cheeses.
Hotel Klaus K is considered the best breakfast in town, with classic Finnish breakfast dishes made from local producers, like a traditional baked cheese, handmade butter, sauna-smoked ham, and smoked whitefish and salmon, as well as a divine porridge of whole barley or rye cooked overnight in a slow oven. It is eaten as is, or with local preserves.
But there are many good restaurants in Helsinki—and too many that, sadly, I didn't get to explore in my short time there, like the haute Chez Dominique and Olo and Loft. I barely scratched the surface of its many architectural, design, and cultural treasures. I especially regret not visiting the Finnish Sauna Society, which was founded in 1937 to foster "The Culture of the Natural Bath." It maintains a pristine public sauna in Helsinki "in natural surroundings away from the urban area, yet close to downtown." Here's where you can experience a real Finnish sauna heated with firewood, with an outside porch and the possibility of swimming in the sea afterward (essential).